The Cycle of Service: How one artist reclaims and gives back

At five years old, Kelly Allen turned a plastic trash can into a loom to weave bookmarks while she watched cartoons.

The need to create has always been a strong drive for Allen. Although she primarily paints today, she still loves to crochet, knit and pursue craft-oriented hobbies. She also enjoys using reclaimed materials in her work, once opening a now-defunct creative reuse shop in Grand Rapids.

Her love for nature, a disdain for humanity’s excessive wastefulness, and a desire to protect the environment and reduce her toxic footprint continues to inspire and inform her work.

“Art supplies can be pretty toxic and pretty wasteful,” she said. “It’s fun diverting things from the landfill, plus it’s free and creates parameters for creativity.”

Allen, known for her surrealistic and abstract paintings, regularly exhibits her work at LaFontsee Galleries — one of many on her extensive resume, which includes a 10-page spread in Hi-Fructose Magazine and illustrations for New York Magazine.

She began art at a young age, going on to graduate with a degree in painting from Humboldt State University in California.

“Painting entranced me,” she said. “It offers limitless freedom for experimentation and expression. It can be fast, dramatic, sensuous and I found it more satisfying than any other medium.”

Allen returned to Grand Rapids in 2003, where she met her husband, Jay VanPortfliet, an industrial screen printer. She became active in the artist community while earning her MFA in drawing from Kendall College of Art and Design.

In 2010, the couple moved to San Francisco so she could pursue her studio art and meet influential dealers and collectors. Those California connections led to work in exhibitions around the world before they moved back to Grand Rapids.

Like many creatives, she has worked in a variety of capacities to supplement her craft: gallery assistant, curator, art instructor, and working with individuals with developmental disabilities. 

Drawing on those experiences, Allen has embarked on a new career path that will give her the opportunity to help others individually while utilizing her creative mind, pursuing a master’s degree in occupational therapy at Western Michigan University with the goal of working as a pediatric occupational therapist.

How do you see your new career influencing your art or inspiring new work?

Art will fit in well with my career as an OT as I become more experienced. Just as most artists supplement their studio art practice with professional careers, like art professors, we make time to make the work that we need to make to satisfy our souls and our purpose as artistic individuals. 

What’s the focus of your new work?

My new Bioforms series has been influenced by my recent schooling in anatomy and physiology, and also reflects the process of how we as humans grow, develop and grow layers of history through time and experience. I’m always pushing my edges to try new styles, new materials or revisit previous styles and materials with new insight.

What’s your process like?

I keep my mind open when I go to create. I have no preconceived expectations. I come from a place of exploration. I feel like a channel when I am in the grips of making work, almost like some force is making the work through me. I work in stages. I have to give myself space and time away from a painting in order to see issues to resolve and develop strategies to implement.

Kelly Allen with one of her paintings. Courtesy Photo

How did volunteering with people with disabilities change your work?

Volunteering with art organizations for people with disabilities gave me permission to dramatically shift my work from the hyper-realistic style of painting that I was most known for to loosening up, going abstract, using found materials, and letting go of the need for perfection. Working with these clients allowed me the ability to experience the freedom, authenticity and joy they brought to their work. It was beautiful, but in a very different way than my work.

Do you have any specific aspirations for the future?

I’d like to connect with people with autism who are interested in art and work to facilitate their creative expressions. I’m also extremely interested in neuroscience and would possibly like to participate in research to provide more evidence for the cognitive, emotional and functional benefits of making art to validate the practice in the eyes of the scientific and educational communities. 

Do you feel like West Michigan is a good place for artists? What could be better?

Yes, it’s a good place for trying out ideas. It’s small enough to be able to start your own gallery or creative reuse shop, like I did, and has a lot of art-lovers and community support. It could be better if artists can become more bold — do more wild projects, make bigger, louder, more impactful work.

What advice would you give a young artist?

Don’t be afraid to speak your truth. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid to ruffle people’s feathers.

Find more of Kelly's work at