Dark. Colorful. Adorable. Twisted … Erin Mulligan

The art of Erin Mulligan is at once dark and adorable. It comes as no surprise that her influences include Hieronymus Bosch and Norman Rockwell.

She paints cats on unicycles. Bunnies spitting fire. Vultures having tea.

The art of Erin Mulligan is at once dark and adorable. It comes as no surprise that her influences include Hieronymus Bosch and Norman Rockwell.

Mulligan creates meticulously detailed oil paintings of familiar faces from the animal kingdom, but almost always with some kind of twist.

Fire-breathing bunnies. Paratrooper catfish bombing a city. A duck holding an elephant-head balloon on a string. A little winged monkey in red high heels, holding a bubble wand. A group of turkey vultures at a tea party. The artist giggles about the last one.

“These creatures that eat roadkill having an elegant tea party.”

A genuine free spirit, Mulligan offers quirky, off-the-cuff insights into many of her paintings.

“She’s got her bad face on,” she says about a portrait of her cat, Celery Taylor, riding a unicycle in a jester costume.

Her whimsical painting of an eight-eyed spider, titled “Mr. Flower,” inspires a confession.

“I really, really hate how spiders look, and I hate that I feel that way. That’s really prejudicial.”

Mulligan explains one of her new paintings thusly: “It’s a dying cicada who learned how to earn a dollar and figured out how to take it with him.”

From the sound of things, Mulligan, 28, always has been unusually artistic. As a little girl, she recalls, “I always drew these mice. They’d be scuba diving and boating.”

“Every little kid is an artist,” she observes. “Most people grow out of it. I stayed with it. My whole family was very encouraging.”

She grew up in Canton near Monument Park, moved to Minerva with her family at age 15, and moved back to Canton a couple of years ago.

She has a longtime boyfriend named Kipper who draws accomplished cartoons on her tile floor with a Sharpie.

“I didn’t have many friends growing up. I was definitely a strange person,” she says. “Maybe I still am, and I just hide it better.”

She found solace in her sketchbooks.

“It was almost like a diary. If I was sad about something, I would make it into a whole story with creatures and things.”

An animal adorer, as witnessed by her artwork and her four-cat household, until recently Mulligan worked as a veterinarian’s assistant at a clinic.

“I loved it,” she says emphatically, then adds, “I didn’t like the euthanasia, obviously. And the dental surgery.”

Then she pulls out a furry hand puppet that she has just made — a Cyclops cat.

“Look, it has teeth,” she exclaims, grinning.

Mulligan was taking painting lessons from Frank Dale of Massillon and pursuing more conventional artwork.

“My art teacher was looking through my sketchbooks and said, ‘You need to paint some of these creatures,’ ” she says. “I always thought of paintings as serious.”

Mulligan’s paintings have been widely displayed locally, at the Cyrus, Acme Artists and 2nd April galleries, and in the “Stark Naked Salon” and “Stark County Artists Exhibition,” both at the Massillon Museum.

“I was mesmerized,” Christian Harwell, owner of Cyrus Custom Framing, recalls about his first exposure to Mulligan’s work. “By the fire-breathing bunnies, specifically. It haunted me for months. Her work is fanciful and classic, with a modern twist. I mean, Albrecht Dürer painted rabbits in the 1500s, but they weren’t breathing fire.”

Harwell, who has become tight friends with Mulligan, says, “I love the way her mind works. She brought in a drawing just yesterday of some maggots and electricity.” He chuckles. “I have no idea what she was thinking.”

A breakthrough work for Mulligan was the painting she did for “Stations of the Cross,” a themed invitational show this past spring at downtown Canton’s Anderson Creative gallery.

“When I heard about the show, right away I wanted to (paint) the Crucifixion,” she says. “But then I thought, ‘Man, I’ve gotta really do this respectfully.’ And it had to be thought-provoking.”

Her depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, using human figures with animal heads, is reverent, provocative, haunting and fascinating. After painstakingly completing the painting, “I thought, ‘There’s going to be so many people who don’t like this.’ ”

Instead, her painting proved transfixing to gallery visitors.

“We did not get one negative reaction to it,” reports Craig Joseph, who curated “Stations of the Cross.” “People without a religious background found it intriguing, and people who were familiar with the Scriptures would stand there and try to puzzle it out. A lot of the animal heads Erin picked were specifically animals referred to by Christ in the Scriptures — the lion, sheep, goats, viper. People thought it was oddly reverential.”

Mulligan’s latest endeavor is a collaborative exhibit at Anderson Creative titled “Habitat: From the Files of Steph(v)en Aronhalt Mulligan Pinkerton,” that will run Nov. 5 through 27. The tongue-in-cheek project centers around a fictitious British explorer who reportedly disappeared while in the jungles of Rwanda seeking rare plants and creatures.

The show, designed to resemble a natural-history museum installation, will feature recovered artifacts of the explorer — journals, photographs, sketches and taxidermied creatures.

For “Habitat,” Mulligan has created field studies of these fantastical beasts, which include, as she describes them, “an aquatic cat with webbed feet and external gills, and a camouflaged centipede with a hypnotizing eye.”

Amid the downtown-Canton art scene, Mulligan has found friends and kindred spirits.

“I love all those people, and I’m excited about all the art stuff that’s going on, with so many people trying to promote creative ideas. My grandmother made a lot of art, but there was nowhere for her to show it.”

She’s not, however, a big “scenester.”

“I don’t get downtown so much,” she confesses. “I’m sort of a recluse. It’s so easy to be by yourself.” By herself, that is, along with Kipper, Hercules, Celery Taylor, Regimond and Periwinkle Pepperpots.