From reporting abroad to painting in Estacada
Caroline Allen has always been creative, but what she's created has evolved with time.
A former reporter and editor for the Daily Yomiuri in Tokyo and the Financial Times in London, Allen is now a novelist and painter, working from a yurt on her Estacada property that she's transformed into an art studio.
Though she won awards for her art as a child, Allen never expected it to become a serious pursuit.
In the 1990s, while struggling to find a path after giving up her career in international journalism, she received a reading from a psychic. The cards pulled indicated that she was a visual artist — which she thought was ridiculous.
"It cost $65, and I was like 'that's $65 down the drain," she recalled. "I was enraged. . .(But) five years later I pick up a paintbrush and unbelievable happiness ensues."
Since then, Allen has had art shows in Seattle and Massachusetts. She will also be featured in the upcoming multidisciplinary art show "Savor," organized by RAW Portland.
"I think it's a profound journey for anybody to truly find themselves," Allen said, discussing the winding road she took to becoming a visual artist. "I think it's a hard journey. There's the emotional intensity of it. But what I love is that it feels like such an authentic, soulful path."
Abroad and back
After graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism, Allen moved to Tokyo with the goal of acquiring a job in media once she arrived.
"Unconsciously, I just stopped doing (art) and decided, 'I'm going to travel the world," she recalled. "I wasn't going to get married and have children in the manner that everyone around me did, especially in rural America."
Allen didn't know anyone in Japan, or anyone who had been abroad. Eight months after arriving in Tokyo, she landed a job at the Daily Yomiuri, where she worked as an editor when Emperor Hirohito died.
After spending a year backpacking through Southeast Asia as a travel writer, Allen moved to London and worked for The Independent and The Financial Times.
"I was at The Independent when Diana died," she recalled. "When I was in Japan, Emperor Hirohito died, and when I got to London Princess Diana had died. It was a really profound echo."
Though Allen enjoyed her time abroad, in the early 1990s she returned to the U.S., wanting to experience more of her home culture.
"(I had been) gone almost a decade, and something happens at the decade mark," she said. "Something happens in your soul. You're challenged to — am I going to stay away from my home culture? Or am I going to go back? I had a therapist who said, 'there are parts of you that are missing and you need to go find them. And they're in America.' I absolutely think she was right."
Allen added that her experience as an expat was "particularly unique" because she had a limited knowledge of her home country.
"I grew up in the Midwest, and I didn't know America at all," she said. "I had left very young and didn't even know my country."
A series of changes
Allen moved to Seattle and found many differences between her life abroad and the life she would create back in the U.S.
"I've never felt, ever, like I fit in again," she said. "This is what happens (when you move abroad), but if you stay gone longer it's even worse. People will refer to 'oh, do you remember in this decade, or this year,' and you didn't live here. You have no connection with it. And so you can't really have conversations. You see things very differently."
Several other differences were jarring upon arriving in Seattle. Because most of her career had been spent abroad, she found it difficult to obtain a journalism job.
"I came from major newspapers in London, and no one would hire me in Seattle," she said. "I tried every paper. No newspaper in the U.S. had my clips that they could look at. I did not follow the normal journalism track, so they didn't hire me."
Allen had difficulty adjusting to her new status quo.
"If you work for the Financial Times or The Independent, you pick up the phone and they call you back like you're important," she said. "I moved to America, and I had no idea that I wasn't important. I would pick up the phone, and people wouldn't get back to me."
Eventually, Allen was hired at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Particularly working for a daily newspaper in a big city, many of the stories she dealt with revolved around crime and other traumatic events. She began having pain and numbness in her arms but ignored the symptoms. However, everything came to a head one day while she was working in the newsroom.
"On this police scanner, there was a little boy on the phone to the police, and he was underneath the bed, and he says, 'Mommy is going to kill Daddy," she recalled. "I'm cleaning up a story on trauma as the little boy is talking about trauma."
After listening to the police scanner, both of her arms went out. She was later diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a disorder that occurs when nerves, arteries or veins near the lower neck are compressed.
"It was the last time I would ever work in a newsroom," Allen said. "It took me three months to be able to use my arms again. I lost my house, my car, my career."
A life in visual and literary arts
It was the road to recovery that paved the way for Allen to rekindle her artistic pursuits. When she regained a bit of mobility in her arms, she began tracing her hand on a piece of cardboard and later decorated the project with mythological symbols.
"What I was doing, without realizing it, was beginning the process of having my hands do (nothing but) beauty and art. Before, what came out of my hands was was trauma," she said. "Even though I loved it, the problem with journalism was, for me, the newsroom was so traumatic. These were big city dailies. There was nonstop violence."
Though Allen had enjoyed art as a child, she had forgotten what it meant to her — even when the psychic said it was her calling.
"As I was doing (the art) it clicked in my mind, 'Oh, she told me that five years ago," she said.
When Allen lost use of her arms for the three month stretch, she was also writing a novel.
"How am I going to be a writer if I can't use my arms?" she remembered asking herself.
She decided that she would memorize a short story she wanted to write.
"I wrote the first line in my head," she said. "Then I did the second sentence in my head, and then I repeated the first and second sentences. I wrote a 25 page story in my head. It ultimately became the final chapter of my (first) novel. It's been 18 years and I can still almost state it to you."
Today, Allen has published "Earth" and "Air," the first two installments in a five-novel series. She believes journalism was valuable training for novel writing, though she sees many differences between the two mediums.
"Journalism is external," she said. "Creative writing is a more internal personal process of self-exploration."
As a painter, Allen's favorite element of the process is color.
"What I like is the color and the form in just that moment," she said, noting that spending time looking at paintings in London art galleries inspired her to pursue that particular medium.
Discussing her artistic process, she said "there's an energy that channels through and comes out of my hands."
"It mixes with my personality and comes out with my imprint on it," she continued. "Somebody else might have the same energy come through them, but it would come out with their style, with their personality."
Allen writes and paints in her yurt studio, filled with color from projects she's completed and sun filtering in through a skylight. She purchased the yurt in celebration of her second novel being published.
"Virginia Woolf (said) a woman needs a room of her own if she is to write fiction," Allen said. "What I find coming in here, this is the only place I'm completely myself."
She added that she's looking forward to the upcoming RAW show, which is her first showing in the Portland area.
"I love the fact that I'm going to be around musicians and fashion designers, jewelry makers and performance artists," she said. "I'm excited that I don't even know what I'm going to possibly see that's so outside of the way I think about art."
IF YOU GO
What: RAW Portland presents "Savor, " a showcase featuring visual artists, music, fashion design, among other mediums. Allen and other Portland area artists are included.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15.
Where: Roseland Theater, 8 N.W. Sixth Ave., Portland.
More information: www.rawartists.org/portland/savor
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