Justin Hillgrove, the creator of Imps and Monsters. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Justin Hillgrove, the creator of Imps and Monsters. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Where the wild things are in Snohomish

Step into the studio of Imps and Monsters creator Justin Hillgrove for a Black Friday sale.

The bright yellow house tucked in the woods of Snohomish is full of monsters.

They come from the mind of artist Justin Hillgrove.

What’s up with that?

Hillgrove, creator of Imps and Monsters, turns his silly, scary, fanciful creatures into art that covers the walls of libraries, schools and offices around the world.

“I was kind of always plagued by nightmares as a kid, and I guess it never really went away,” Hillgrove said. “I take those nightmares and make them adorable.”

Indeed. The faces are round, the smiles mischievous, the pudgy bodies are almost huggable.

The public is invited to Imps and Monsters headquarters at his home this weekend for the annual Black Friday open house.

“They can see the studio and hang out,” Hillgrove said. “I usually have some kind of swag bag.”

Behind the lime green garage door is a stockroom of prints, plushies, comics, coloring books, buttons and more. Stickers cost $1, comics are $4, and prints run $20.

“I used to do T-shirts, but I don’t like folding them. It took too much time,” he said. “I’d rather be painting.”

He has done more than 1,000 paintings. He also makes games.

His studio, in what was once the carport, boasts a mesmerizing toy collection, a mural of his characters, old-fashioned paints and high-tech printers.

It’s the same house where Hillgrove, 41, grew up. The same house where the nightmares began — and continue. But now the married father of four handles them differently.

“Now when I wake up sometimes I’m scared, but then I think about it and it’s like a story. You go over it and go, ‘That would make a good painting,’ ” he said.

Evolution of the imps

Hillgrove has been drawing since he was old enough to pick up a crayon and not eat it.

“Where the Wild Things Are” was his favorite book growing up. He also loved the cover art for the countless fantasy and sci-fi novels he read and the art from role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons that he and his four siblings would play.

Other influences are Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away”), Jim Henson, Saturday morning cartoons — and his Grandpa Arthur, whose oil paints he inherited.

Fatherhood changed Hillgrove’s painting style from dark and fantasy-centric to more mainstream kid-friendly.

“When the kids showed up, I wanted to make everything cute and approachable,” he said. “I wanted things that the kids wouldn’t be scared of and be comfortable with having in their rooms.”

Why monsters?

“Monsters are so much more relatable than people are,” he said. “People, when you see them, are so specific. But monsters look so different you go, ‘OK, that can be me.’ It is easier to empathize. For the most part, when I’m painting, I’m taking very human situations and replacing monsters with those people.”

He can relate.

“People tell me that I’m odd, but not in a bad way,” he said. “At church (The Church of Latter Day Saints in Snohomish), I’m the lovable but somewhat eccentric odd guy. It’s like I’m the mascot. I’m OK with that.”

Artist Justin Hillgrove, creator of Imps and Monsters, in his studio. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Artist Justin Hillgrove, creator of Imps and Monsters, in his studio. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Chasing dreams

After high school, Hillgrove did a two-year mission trip in Peru, where he said he didn’t have nightmares. He attended three colleges before graduating from Everett Community College.

He worked at For Rent magazine in Bothell for 10 years.

“It was a blessing. I’d work all day doing layouts and learning a lot from it — composition and color and balance. It wouldn’t use up all my creative energy, so I could still go home and paint,” he said.

In 2005, the monsters came out from under the bed.

“My wife said, ‘Hey, you have a lot of paintings. You should show some.’ We did, and I sold four pieces to my best friend’s wife and that was it. So I said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad, I guess I suck.’ I kept doing it and was surprised by the reaction. Last year, I did my 10-year book and it’s 224 pages and there’s probably 400 paintings in it.”

His characters are an homage to pop culture, tribute and parody art. There’s a steam punk Alice in Wonderland, zombie Charlie Brown, “Star Wars” totem and oodles of imps he invented.

“Two of my favorite characters are a Sasquatch and a yeti, and they’re kind of Romeo and Juliet style,” he said.

Hillgrove creates stories to go with his characters. Some are friendly, awkward or sly. Others are shy, indifferent or openly hostile. Some are armed with weapons and others with books.

A series of about 10 prints of monsters reading books decorate the library at Challenger Elementary School in Everett.

“It captures adult attention, not just kids,” said Tara Jeffries, Challenger’s dean of students.

Jeffries discovered Hillgrove at an arts festival in Edmonds about five years ago and started collecting pieces for her home, then asked if he’d donate prints to her Title 1 school.

“He’s a good representation for any kid who has a dream of being an artist: It’s possible and he’s done it. Take your dream and make it a reality,” she said.

She already has a Hillgrove painting about reaching for the stars picked out for her office when she lands her dream job as a principal.

Acclaimed artist Justin Hillgrove (left) watches and talks with his assistant, Charlie Mendez recently as Mendez deals with customer print orders recently in a workroom adjacent to the studio. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Acclaimed artist Justin Hillgrove (left) watches and talks with his assistant, Charlie Mendez recently as Mendez deals with customer print orders recently in a workroom adjacent to the studio. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Standing out

Hillgrove has a full-time assistant, Charlie Mendez, who helps with shows, orders, canvas stretching and other details. Lending a hand, and sharing his passion for art, are his wife, Jessica, and their four children, Calvin, 15, Vivian, 14, Oliver, 12, and Jovial, 8.

Products are shipped all over the world, and outside the U.S. are especially popular in the U.K. and Japan. He did murals in Facebook offices in Seattle and London.

Sometimes, Hillgrove gets noticed.

“I had a kid come up and say, ‘Are you famous?’ ” he said. “I went into a boat shop and a lady ran up and said, ‘Hey, you’re the Imps and Monsters guy,’ and the guy behind the counter was like, What!?”

On a recent trip to Idaho, one of his kids was wearing a character T-shirt and someone came up and said, “Oh, I love that artist.”

“I like it when it happens with my kids because they say, ‘Oh, my dad is cool,’ ” Hillgrove said.

In a house full of imps and monsters, he’s just one of them.

Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @reporterbrown

Imps and Monsters Black Friday Open Studio Sale

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 24 and 25, 7110 184th St. SE, Snohomish. More at www.impsandmonsters.com.

Items are available year-round at Bobakhan Toys & Collectibles, 500 S.E. Everett Mall Way, Suite A-1, Everett.

Small Business Saturday on Nov. 25 is part of a national effort to draw some holiday shopping out of the malls and onto to the Main Streets — and the backroads.

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