Kelly in Wonderland

Kelly Allen sat drinking a mason jar of pink lemonade on the front steps of her 90-year-old Elmwood home. She smiled to the morning sun, wiggled her bare toes, then turned to step through her front porch door —a portal to what seemed like another dimension.

Interior walls alive with color bear the fruit of Allen's creative mind. Zucchini and lime green. Tomato red. Fuchsia pink. Multimedia art graces the walls of living spaces downstairs and up. Sofa covers and bedroom curtains are appliquéd with her signature art. Husband Jay VanPortfliet and their two cats live happily inside Allen’s playful world of op-art rooms in 3-D.

Art seemingly was her destiny. “I was one of those kids that wanted to color, draw, weave and make jewelry and my mom was always very supportive of me,” she says. “My maternal grandma couldn’t pursue her art talent because of eye trouble. So I consciously made it my goal to explore art and become an artist.”

Today, that creative energy fuels a lifestyle and a promising new business venture.

Plunging Down the Rabbit Hole
As a young student at Forest Hills Hills Central High School, Allen satiated her obsession in advanced placement art classes 2 hours every morning. Mrs. Culver, a favorite teacher, spurred Kelly on, feeding her desire to learn through experimentation. Upon graduation, she took more art classes and traveled, landing in Arcadia, California among the redwoods where she earned her B.A. in Painting.

“I was drawn to delicate Japanese style and culture along the way,” Allen says. “Japanese pop art is really fun, I love their patterns.”

Relatively unknown when she returned to Grand Rapids, Allen rapidly made a name for herself through shows and live artist battles at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art. Her drive to create – “it’s like stretching or eating for me,” she says – eventually landed her in what would become Byrneboehm Gallery, which specializes in work created by local artists.

“My newest body of work is mixed media fine art,” Allen says. “It incorporates line drawing, colored pencil, graphite, cut paper and gouache (opaque water color). Mixed media is like bringing together different languages. When I’m creating, I explore like a scientist. I seek to portray the good and positive potential in nature and our selves using interconnection and imagination.”

Now 28 years old and pursuing a Master of Fine Art degree at Kendall College, Allen delves deeper yet into meaning and motivation, symbolism and narrative. This has led her through the looking glass to another Salvador Dali-like dimension where a unique, expressive, and transformative creative impulse is unleashed. She makes animals talk. They are emotive, thoughtful creatures conversing through her text on tableau. She plays with her audience, touching their inner child.

“I use animal imagery and anthropomorphize animals in a playful way so people feel nostalgia and happiness,” Allen says. “They let down their guard.”

Her world is real and surreal. One tableau starts with an image of a hurricane survivor found in National Geographic. Kelly Allen explains where it goes from there: “She was looking over the ruin in her town, sad but with dignity. I drew her in this happy, surreal landscape to honor and connect with her. A pile of gifts on the hippos back—pillows, books, yarn for knitting, deviled eggs—are comforting things, gifts I want to give her. The hippo is on a tight rope walking back to feather-land where they live. He needs help to get up the rope so he asks Chuck the bug who lives in feather-land for help, and Chuck says: ‘sure.’”

Another creation uses symbolic elements such as a white owl and butterfly eggs – imagery taken from nature books. “The lawn mower is driving by itself to mow down the stand of butterfly eggs (representing people) and the owl is watching and protecting the eggs, saving us from self-destruction of our own doing, which is symbolized by the lawn mower.”

A Business Born of Imagination
Owls and deviled eggs reoccur in Allen’s work. Owls symbolize protection, a guardian force. Deviled eggs represent an offering to nature (because of all the work that goes into making them.)

“We need to be less human centric, more reverent,” Allen explains. “I love nature, hiking, being outside, our beautiful Lake Michigan. We try to protect and save nature by living green.”

“Jay does the laundry and hangs it on the line,” Allen continues. “I ride my bike to school when possible. So does Jay. We grow our own food in season, compost, and recycle. We actively search for ways to save energy.”

As she cleans up a spill with a T-shirt rag, Allen explains how environment impacts her art. “I now use donated matt board from Byrneboehm Gallery, recycling a product that would normally be thrown away. I try to exclude toxic products, to use water-based.”

A new business – heebeegeebee – is a natural extension of Allen’s art. The brand, a clothing line for young women, launched this summer in Vegas and boutiques already are placing small orders.

Together Allen and her husband create, design, and print her artwork on T’s made from a blend of organic cotton and recycled polyester. “Ultimately this allows people who could not afford Kelly’s fine art, to own a piece,” says Jay VanPortfliet. “It opens up the market to wearable art and gets her name out there at the same time.”

As we talk, Allen wears a T called “octodendron,” which combines octopus tentacles with phylodendron leaves and birds. Another sample, “helicopter girl,” shows a young girl with maple tree seed twirly-birds falling from the sky. Images taken from Allen’s art are enhanced with other line elements or Andy Warhol-style photographs from old magazines.

“I am a free thinker,” says Allen. “I have future aspirations to incorporate psychology with art therapy. The experience of what can come from art is so soothing and beneficial for people.”

Kelly Allen will appear with Michele Bosak, another local artists, in a show that begins November 16, 2007 at Byrneboehm Gallery (959 Lake Drive). Or go get the “heebeegeebees” on-line at Allen’s imagination challenges worldly limits and grant us nostalgia, laughter and the silly things of life. And this, she says, is only the beginning.

Nancy Davis is an independent writer and artist living in Grand Rapids. She's currently working on a piece about a new effort to brand West Michigan as a hub for design innovation.


Kelly Allen works on a new drawing

Kelly decorated the master bedroom of her home with her art and personal touches

Kelly and her husband Jay VanPortfliet

The kitchen and breakfast nook

Artwork detail of drawing featuring sheep

Kelly and Jay with T-shirts featuring Kelly's art that is sold through their company heebeegeebee

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved