May 30, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Derek Joy

Kevin Franz draws monsters. And just like humans, those monsters contain multitudes.

Franz, who earned his BFA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, double majoring in studio art and psychology, started with an emphasis on sculpture and installation, eventually moving in the direction of illustration. He’d created “different little monsters” along the way, but the effort crystallized during The Year of the Monster.   

“I did a drawing every single day for an entire year and they were all monsters of different kinds,” he says. “That was a very formative time in art for me because it was my last year of school and probably one of the years I gained the most popularity as an artist. People still reference that year of monsters when they talk to me about my art.”

Franz began the project as a way to keep the creative juices flowing going into his thesis, “A decaying life; or, if you’re a monster then I’m a monster too.” A longtime fantasy genre fan, he had been doodling monsters and dragons for years. So, Franz chose monsters as the theme and away he went.

“[The project] got very conceptual, too, because a lot of my thesis ended up talking about how people could become monsters or how people dealt with their own monsters, so it was a very simplified imagery for more complex ideas,” Franz says.

Franz’s creatures are typically colorfully drawn and featured alongside snippets of copy expressing all-too-human emotions such as despair, worry, and joy, allowing the viewer to empathize with them. The effect is a poignant reciprocity that lends humanity to the monsters while highlighting and normalizing the demons that humans face.

“When I first started, there were creepier, spookier monsters. Now I keep it more well-rounded. Monsters don’t have to be scary. Because everyone can be a monster and everything can be monstrous to certain people, I started going more in the direction of making it something you could empathize with and something that wasn’t the general concept of monsters,” says Franz, noting that much of the work became more autobiographical as his daily thoughts and feelings were reflected in each drawing.

Franz has created work around other themes, and you may have seen his work in galleries, online, or via commissions he’s done. But many Omahans have probably seen his talent displayed in an unlikely space: Trader Joe’s.

Franz has worked at Trader Joe’s in Omaha for seven years, and he spent about four years creating art for the store, which only a couple people at a time are able to do at each location. He says that work includes “anything you see there that’s visual, like the paintings on the walls, chalkboards, and handwritten signs.”

While he moved out of the “art cave” at Trader Joe’s to pursue a management position and allow an opportunity for others eager for a turn, Franz continues to create art for various reasons—chiefly, because he finds it therapeutic. When he was posting daily entries online throughout The Year of the Monster, Franz says many people approached him and indicated solidarity with some of the dark emotions in the work. 

“I think [making art] is good for your spirit and I think it’s good for other people,” Franz says. “I’ve always kind of struggled with depression, too, so that’s a heavy—but maybe not always right on the surface—influence. It was really enlightening for me to see how many people all thought the exact same thing and felt the same thing…That was one of the biggest motivators, helping myself and other people remember that you’re not necessarily alone with the darker parts of your life.”



For more information, visit letsplaymonsters.com.

This article was printed in the June 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Kevin Franz