Michael Mahaffey's art is defined by an edgy sense of discomfort.

In "Curious Creatures and Terrible Tales," a new solo exhibit at Gallery Espresso, he displays provocative work created with handmade stencils and spray paint, including a portrait of Marilyn Monroe as a sneering countercultural rebel with a machine gun. He depicts office workers as clones with clocks instead of heads, clutching suitcases and bombs, and offers an x-ray view of a unicorn.

"I used to be much more interested with just creating pretty pictures, and now I work hard to blend beauty and content," he said. "I like to pull people in with a striking image and then hope they'll stick around to consider the visual story happening on the canvas."

Mahaffey uses acrylic paint, gel medium and spray paint to tell a larger story about conformity and rebellion. He recently spoke with us about surrealism, science fiction and stereotypes.

Your work at Gallery Espresso has a definite surrealist edge. What tends to drive your creative process?

I think at this point, I view what I do as isolating reality and putting a magnifying glass against some of its more severe scenarios, hoping to bring attention to them. I think we do a lot of silly things, some funny and some hurtful. It's fun and rewarding as an artist to reflect that back to people and help them see things in a more specific light. 

I'm hoping people can see what I'm doing and agree with me that certain things - like working in a job you hate or being in a relationship you know is doomed - are negative and possibly dragging you down and impacting your life. 

Your compositions often reference science fiction and "Star Wars." Where does your interest in sci-fi come from? 

I'm definitely a child of the '80s and grew up in love with "Star Wars." As I got older, I started seeing elements in "Star Wars" and other sci-fi stories that I really liked. A common sci-fi element is the openness to exploration, a passion to expand one's horizons, sharing knowledge, creating dialogue. I love all that. 

As an artist, particularly with stencil work, it's fun to find icons you can work with to help draw a viewer in. I tend to use some familiar images or concepts - like Darth Vader, space suits or alien landscapes - as a way to help people have an instant connection and then find a new way for them to enjoy that idea or scenario. 

You seem to be fascinated with the idea of breaking away from the norm or fighting the pressure to conform. Why are you interested in these themes? 

I've tried really hard to live life with my eyes wide open. I've moved around a lot, met a lot of people and had some bizarre and terrible jobs before I was able to support myself with my art. I've seen a lot of unhappy people during my travels, and I feel like so much of that comes from both an inability to find fulfillment and a lack of self awareness. We can be terribly self-defeating. 

I want people to be able to feel it's OK to question yourself and to question the things you've been told. It's OK to think independently and come to your own conclusions. Life just seems too precious to not engage it with a clear head and hunger for honesty. 

Tell me about your process, working with stencils and dry media. What kinds of materials do you use and why?

I kind of stumbled into this technique after years of doing mostly dry media portraiture with graphite and pastel. I've always loved detailed and complicated drawings, so now I just do it on poster board or card stock and cut it out with an X-acto knife when I'm done. I have a lot of fun taking the canvas and putting down a background that I think will complement whichever stencil I've chosen for it. 

I do most of the background in acrylic and play around with some gels and other additives to get the texture just right. After years of spending so much time on a drawing that then had to be carefully and expensively framed, it's incredibly fun for me to be able to take that drawing and then just spray paint through it. And, if you want to try it on a different background color, you can do that too. Or spray it on wood instead of canvas, or paper, whatever. Working in this way really opened me up as an artist, and its versatility is still really exciting for me. 

I like how your work offers a sardonic twist on a wide range of human experiences, ranging from romance to office politics. Why are you fascinated with these issues? 

Honestly, it probably comes from growing up gay in a really conservative family. 

I had to deal with prejudice and hostility early on and it really shaped the emphasis I place on communication, compassion and honesty. 

I became acutely aware of how often people rely on stereotypes or second-hand information to form opinions. I play around with visual scenarios that explore these issues and strive to open up dialogue and encourage people to be more aware of themselves and the people they share the planet with.