February 27, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

From a very young age, Omaha artist Stephen Kavanaugh had a raw talent for art, as well as a wise-beyond-his-years understanding of what it takes to be a professional artist. 

“The first drawing I did was of me and my grandpa fishing, and I was like 4 years old, but I was able to draw all this detail, and ever since then my mom pushed me to keep doing art. She saw something in me, so she even paid for outside art classes,” says Kavanaugh, now 29. “But even at that age, I remember having the thought that it wasn’t easy to do art as a career. Looking back now, that seems like a weird realization to have at age 5, but even then I couldn’t imagine not doing art. There’s something about it that gives me a stability that I don’t get from anything else. So, I’ve always kept with it because it feels wrong to leave it.”    

Kavanaugh’s penchant for drawing ultimately blossomed into an interest in everything from painting to sculpture to graphic design. At age 19 he discovered street art.

“The day I saw Exit Through the Gift Shop I went to Blick, bought all the stencil work to make my first street art piece, and did it that night at 3 a.m. Ever since then I was hooked, and I did that for a year,” Kavanaugh says.

A decade later, now a father of two, Kavanaugh says doing street art isn’t as feasible, but it’s a passion that continues to shine through in his work. His current focus is on painting, particularly mural work and live painting, where an artist creates a painting in front of an audience, often in tandem with live music.

“The live art is something that replaces that rush I would get from being out doing street art. I still feel like a street artist, just not on the streets,” he says with a laugh.

Kavanaugh’s vibrant style is characterized by intensely bright, rich colors and, typically, rounded outer borders. There’s a geometrical feel to his work. An array of shapes, symbols, and characters—in both senses of the word—come together in an animated flash mob of sorts, jumping off the canvas like an unruly, moving mosaic.     

artwork by Stephen Kavanaugh

In addition to street art, murals, and painting, Kavanaugh hasn’t been shy when it comes to exploring niche art forms. He illustrated a children’s book called Number Mountain and also self-published two original art coloring books, Bloom and Roon Toon. From city streets to college classroom seats, and everywhere in between, art has always been Kavanaugh’s driving force. The Omaha native earned his BFA in painting and graphic design from UNO.   

“Graphic design was me trying to take art seriously, but after realizing what graphic design really was, it just didn’t satisfy me enough as an artist,” Kavanaugh says.

But he has no regrets, noting that he got to work on some “cool projects, dream projects, really,” including branding work for Borgata (later Brickway) Brewery & Distillery, creating a key to the city, and design duties for a production of The Wizard of Oz at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Kavanaugh’s also done logo and design work for local bands like Ragged Company and Domestic Blend, not to mention uber-talented musician Aly Peeler, who is also Kavanaugh’s wife and mother to their children, 3-year-old Asher and 18-month-old Otto.   

“She’s an amazing singer,” Kavanaugh says of Peeler. “I really enjoy being married to somebody who works in a different spectrum of art. There’s a great balance there.”

In 2017, after three years supporting himself as a working artist, Kavanaugh took a position at AngelWorks, an arts nonprofit which fortuitously allows him to make a steady living while still doing what he loves.

“AngelWorks is the only art studio in Omaha that works with adults with disabilities, provides them a place to create and display work, and really tries to get them involved in the local artistic community,” says Kavanaugh, who leads classes and outings to various local studios and galleries, and helps create personal portfolios and set up shows allowing AngelWorks clients to showcase and sell their art. He’s also done some stunning collaborative pieces with individuals he works with there.   

“It’s a really awesome program and it’s uncovered a new skill [of mine]. I love those guys, and it’s really cool to see how excited they get when they finish or sell pieces,” says Kavanaugh, who calls his job “challenging and very fulfilling.”

As for his personal artistic pursuits, Kavanaugh hopes to do more live paintings and shows, starting with a January 2018 exhibition at The B Side of Benson Theatre with Maggie Heusinkvelt. Another chief focus for him is doing more mural work.

“Murals bring so much vibrancy and I think Omaha is starting to accept that as a different way of showing off our buildings or as a way for places to show off [what] they are,” Kavanaugh says.

Much as his artistic pursuits have been a patchwork of various endeavors, his mural work graces various, diverse corners of the city—from the Down Under Lounge to UNMC to a local
orthodontics office.    

“For a while I was all over the place, doing live paintings, coloring books, illustration…but it’s nice to have a center and to grow as an artist,” Kavanaugh says. “I always want to evolve instead of being stagnant. Lately, I’ve been coming up with work that’s more quality over quantity, work that I feel proud about.”

This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.