From His Garage, Coloma Man Makes Art For Publications Around The World

Jun 2, 2016

Thomas Allen's "Bearing," 2012
Credit Thomas Allen

Flip through some of today’s popular magazines and you’ll likely spot artist and freelance illustrator Thomas Allen’s work. He’s famous for making pop-up book like cutouts using thrift store novels - and then photographing them. He’ll teach a workshop at Kalamazoo Institute of Arts June 10th through June 12th.


Thomas Allen photographs cutouts of comic book characters. The finished photo will go in a National Geographic article.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Allen’s art has been in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, even the French newspaper Le Monde. All of this from a garage on his family’s farm in Coloma.

“Yeah, I feel very fortunate. And when I give public lectures people ask me, ‘How do you break into the magazine illustration business?’ And I’m honest - I say you know if I knew the secret I would tell you because in my case it literally fell in my lap," he says. 

"I’ve never sought out magazines, they always come to me.”

For him, one show in New York City made a big difference. Allen says after his exhibit at Foley Gallery, the phone kept ringing.

When I visited him in Coloma, he was working on a piece for National Geographic. It’s for an article on comic book characters and diversity. 

Diverse comic book characters to accompany an article in National Geographic
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

“For example one is Native American, one’s Latino, African American women. Midnighter and Apollo are gay and married. So it’s been a real learning experience for me because I’m not really a comic book fan,” he says.

Allen has displayed just the cutouts before - like 3-D paper models - but it’s really the photographs that make his art what it is. Allen says taking a photo allows the viewer to see what he sees. He also uses light and composition to create interest. 

When he makes art for a publication, Allen’s cutouts often appear to pop out of the books from whence they came. He did several of these for author Jasper Fforde’s book-themed novels in his Thursday Next series. But in Allen’s creative work, he likes to put ordinary thrift store characters into unexpected places. For his exhibit Beautiful Evidence, Allen put a whimsical spin on science.

“So here you have these boys playing marbles, but I put them on top of a map of the solar system, so it looks like they’re playing marbles with the planets,” Allen explains.

Allen’s latest exhibit, Paint by Numbers, is more “pop-out” than pop-up. He used an X-acto knife to cut iconic faces out of paint swatches.

“I was just picking paint for something else and I saw the titles of the paint colors and I thought they were kind of ridiculous. And I thought, ‘Well when did paint become humanized?’ And so I started picking paint colors not by the hue but by what they said on them,” he says.

For example, he cut out a portrait of himself for the paint color Storyteller and made an image of the Lone Ranger for the paint color Shooting Star.

Allen has come a long way from when he started cutting up books 20 years ago. He remembers his first cutout book project - it was the cover of mystery novel on his uncle’s bookshelf. It was called The Saint on the Spanish Main.

"I pulled these forward and I realized that if you look at it from one point of view, it looks three dimensional like they’re fighting,” he says.

Allen says he’s lucky. His work can be seen in books and magazines all over the world. And he doesn’t even have to leave his garage.

“You know I tell students you don’t need expensive equipment, you don’t need a fancy studio. It’s you who makes the work and you make it work wherever you are,” he says.

Allen will teach a workshop at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts June 10th through 12th. A few of his works will be on display at the KIA until after the workshop.