An artist and animal advocate who transmutes her difficult life experiences onto everything she creates
Feeling immensely proud of the achievements that some of my friends had made personally and professionally, I began to write their life stories because I truly believed in their ability to inspire their own circles of friends across the world. Chris Kretch, the proud father of my close Ryan Kretch whose story I wrote a couple of years ago, embodied our mission the day he reached out to me to introduce Karen, whom he had once gone to high school with and whom he, too, believed could inspire others.
Despite a fair amount of hardships she has had to face over the years, including home foreclosure and personal losses, Karen always managed to find the inner strength to pick herself back up and find the beauty in life. Her motivation to press on has long been fueled by her passion to protect animals, share her original art and bring joy to audiences with her singing.
This is her story.
“I started singing professionally when I was 21 and have not stopped since then, nor do I intend to until I’m 90. It’s my bliss!” — Karen Wallo
Let your imagination run wild, they say.
Raised in the 1960s and 70s in the historic city of Bound Brook, New Jersey, Karen made quite a reputation as a young girl for scaring other children away with her own thoughts and creativity: “I would tell my friends that I was really from planet Venus and that I had a brother named ‘David’ who lived in my closet,” she recalled jokingly. “I fed him peanut butter sandwiches every day! My dad was also a character. He would put a stocking over his head and chase us kids around. He would also dress in a gorilla costume and hang from the banister on the front porch to mess with passersby!”
Karen later turned that creativity into actions in her teens in the forms of singing, dancing and drawing. Blessed with a home environment that embraced such activities, she was gifted a Hammond organ at the age of 15 and began taking what was once a mere side passion a lot more seriously. At that point, Karen had gone from putting on private shows for her parents on their kitchen table as a child to performing in several plays and singing for her high school’s choir as well as the local all-women Bell Cantos A Capella group all the way through graduation: “Our choir director once told me I would be singing for a living one day… She was right!” Karen told me.
Karen was accepted into the New Jersey State Opera Festival on two occasions, and the opera Carmen was recorded onto an LP when she was just 16 years old. She later joined her first professional band Pirate at the age of 21 and toured professionally all over the United States and Canada as well as parts of Europe for many years. She made the stage her comfort zone; a place she is happiest in and proudly calls home.
She then joined a band called The Box Tops (they were behind the gold record “The Letter”) in the early 1990s with whom she traveled and played at venues with 10,000+ fans for several years as well. She eventually took her talents to better-known acts alongside artists like the Coasters, the Drifters and Davy Jones of The Monkees. She lived on the road and out of hotel rooms for several years and loved every minute of it all. Her most thrilling experience, as it would have been for anyone remotely interested and/or involved in the music business, was singing on stage with U2 lead singer and world-famous celebrity Bono in Marco Island, Florida in the late 1980s (see second and third photos below).
Karen was — and to many of her friends and fans, still is — kind of a rockstar.
“It brings me inner happiness to see the joy on everyone’s faces and watch them let loose and have fun. Life can be so tough and serious, we all need an outlet!” — Karen Wallo
Nothing beats passion.
After graduating university with a major in Psychology and Fine Art and a minor in Math and Music, Karen put on many different gloves over the following years, from tutoring Math and working as a Music Therapist and Teacher to becoming a substance abuse Counselor, serving as a Chiropractic Assistant and flying with Continental Airlines as a Flight Attendant. And while most of these roles have very little in common, they do share one similarity: “Anytime I took my career down a different path, I always ended up back to singing, painting and writing” she shared. “My art and music kept beckoning me to return.”
Sticking to what she loved eventually paid off when she was selected first place by the former director of the world-famous Guggenheim Museum in a painting oil/acrylics competition that involved 4 different states, thereby triggering an interest for a cover story by a national art magazine. Karen felt this opportunity would have catapulted her career to levels she had been dreaming of since her kitchen table days as a child. But as fate would have it, Karen had no choice but to walk away for the sake of her own serenity.
Living and caring for a much bigger cause.
Her love for animals has been around for as long as Karen can remember, partly influenced by her own father’s strong appreciation for other beings which quickly led her to take the vegetarian route. But the cause she was fighting for did not stop at the dinner table. She knew that in order to make a change, she had to take matters into her own hands and seize any opportunity she could find to help those in urgent need.
“I have dedicated my life to saving wildlife, reducing animal suffering and helping the less fortunate.” — Karen Wallo
While living in the state of Nevada in 2011, Karen spent hours rallying to keep wolves on the Endangered Species list which, unfortunately, resulted in the removal of their protection regardless of local citizens’ efforts. She expressed her frustration by publishing several articles on the matter with the Elephant Journal, including “Why Do We Hate the Original Dog?” and “Clean Eating”. “This devastated me,” she admitted. “2011 was a terrible year.”
She kept her head up, punch after punch.
From that point on, an avalanche of deeply saddening events began to unravel. After living happily together with their 3 dogs for 14 years in Las Vegas, her closest friend whom she considered her spiritual brother was tragically killed nearly before her eyes. Shortly after her tragic loss, Karen was forced to put down 2 of her 3 animal companions due to liver and kidney failures and within 5 months, she and her remaining domestic wolf-dog Kaya lost their home as the housing market continued to crash in Las Vegas, a city she had called home since 1994. Despite the opportunity to take her Art career to new highs and with a library of memories built in the span of almost two decades, it was time to start fresh. Their next move, as it turned out, would not be their last.
“After Nevada, my Kaya Wolfie and I moved over 10 times in only 6 years. I could write a book just on this phase of my life, and may one day.” — Karen Wallo
They took their first drive to the rocky state of Colorado where Karen struggled to make a living merely off of her singing talents. After deciding to return to her home state of New Jersey, they stopped by the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio to sing in an 11-piece wedding horn band as a substitute for 3 months. Living with a 130-pound wolf dog, however, does not go unnoticed and presented itself as a bigger challenge than she had anticipated. Unable to find proper accommodation for her companion, Karen and Kaya moved once again.
In only a matter of 7 months after settling back in New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast to become one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in US history, thus forcing the duo to relocate. They lived in upstate New York for a year and a half before giving New Jersey another try. After a quick difficult experience in Florida in 2015 that included a broken shoulder, Karen and her wolf dog finally dropped their suitcases in Toms River, New Jersey where Kaya was unfortunately diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy, an incurable disease he will have to bear with for the rest of his life.
Despite the astronomical veterinary bills, Karen insists they are worth every penny. After years of struggles and uncertainty, there is nothing she wouldn’t do for him.
He is her only child.
What’s next for Karen?
The two seem to have finally found a beautiful and peaceful room to rent in a home on the water in New Jersey, where Karen is keeping herself active — the same way she has her whole life. In addition to working as a Music Therapist for seniors as well as a private Vocal Instructor and Life Coach, she sings in 4 separate bands in the Tri-state area and continues to work on promoting her art pieces across the states of New Jersey, New York and beyond.
Beyond painting and singing, Karen also plans to write her own books. With a heart like hers and life experiences that would have left many in serious depression, I am confident that everything Karen will share has the potential to inspire others to never lose sight of the bigger picture.
And while I thank Karen for taking us through her wild journey, I must dedicate this article to her dear friend Chris Kretch, without whom this story would have never seen the light of day on our site.
“All the tragedies I have lived through only made me stronger and more passionate about reaching my goals. Thank you for reading and may God bless you and yours always and forever.”— Karen Wallo