For a kid who grew up in Cosmopolis, finding herself in the center of the Nirvana storm was an experience that Shelli Hyrkas took a long time to digest.
Hyrkas, whose maiden name was Dilley, was married to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic from 1989 to 1999. She began dating Novoselic in the mid-1980s and thought of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain as a brother. They all met in high school in Aberdeen.
Along the way, she took a lot of pictures of her friends, a collection of candid, behind-the-scenes photographs of Nirvana from the late 1980s and early ’90s that are on display for the first time in a new show in New Mexico.
The photos, which are also for sale, feature Novoselic and Cobain, drummers Chad Channing and Dave Grohl, and “Nevermind” album producer Butch Vig, among others.
The photos are a glimpse into the band’s rise to fame, but Hyrkas doesn’t necessarily see them that way.
“A lot of them weren’t rock ’n’ roll photos or taken as art photos. … I was just taking pictures of family and friends,” she said. “It was just a super-casual thing.”
‘Best of Friends’
Hyrkas actually knew Cobain before Novoselic — he sat behind her in art class. Hyrkas remembered going over to Cobain’s house to listen to Led Zeppelin.
As for Novoselic, it may have been 1970s English punk band the Sex Pistols that brought him and Hyrkas together.
“I’d seen him around school — he was always the class clown,” Hyrkas said from her West Seattle home. One day, she and a friend were talking about how much they liked the Sex Pistols’ classic 1977 “Never Mind the Bollocks” album, and Novoselic chimed in from behind them. They began dating not too long after.
Hyrkas was present for the budding friendship of Cobain and Novoselic, and later their musical partnership.
“They were like brothers,” she said, “the best of friends.”
As Nirvana was formed and grew, Hyrkas was there, too, often snapping pictures of her friends on the road, backstage and in the studio.
After recording its first album, “Bleach,” on the Sub Pop label, the band embarked on a European tour with fellow Sub Pop band Tad. Hyrkas saved up money to buy a plane ticket to meet the band in London, so she and Novoselic could travel to explore his roots in what was then Yugoslavia. It was her first plane ride.
After the band released its iconic album “Nevermind” in 1991, Hyrkas traveled with Nirvana around the U.S. and Europe. Then and in earlier years, Hyrkas’ access to Nirvana’s members was at a level few others had. But for the small-town Grays Harbor girl, experiencing the rest of the world was what burned into her memory.
“So many things were happening around us,” she said. “But we were in the eye of the storm.”
Traveling in a van with the boys of the band to so many places she had never experienced “was really amazing and really fun and exhausting.”
The ride continued until 1994, when Cobain died and Nirvana came to an end.
After she and Novoselic split up about five years later, Hyrkas separated herself from Nirvana, was remarried for a time and has a daughter. Her parents still live in Grays Harbor County.
Novoselic is now married to artist and designer Darbury Stenderu, and lives near Deep River outside of Naselle, in remote Wahkiakum County.
Unboxing the photos
In 2011, the Experience Music Project contacted Hyrkas to see if she could contribute some Nirvana photos to an exhibit. Because Novoselic was also helping collect items for the EMP, she agreed. “That’s when I first realized that people wanted to see that side of Nirvana,” Hyrkas said.
Many of the photos and negatives were just sitting in boxes at her home. She went through them and contributed some photos to what became the EMP’s exhibit, “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses.” The exhibit is still up.
Now she’s ready to share more of the photos with the public. “I feel kind of shy about it,” Hyrkas admitted. “I think it’s taken me a while to come out of my shell and own it.”
“Maybe it was just the right time for me to own it as part of my history and my legacy,” she added.
But, for Hyrkas, sharing the shots is also about showing the candid, fun side of the band.
“I’m really frustrated by the focus on Nirvana in the negative sense,” she said about coverage of Cobain’s drug use and suicide. “I want to show people that we had so much fun … they had so much fun.”
The moral of Nirvana’s rise from Grays Harbor to worldwide musical icons, for Hyrkas, is pretty simple: “Life can take you anywhere — don’t limit yourself.”
Her photography show, “On the Road and in the Studio With Nirvana,” opened at Glenn Green Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this month. More photos in the exhibit can be seen at glenngreengalleries.com/Artists/Shelli_Hyrkas/index.html.