Stu Helm: The Smoky Mountains artist

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With his  collection of tattoo skulls, big scruffy bears and deep smokey eyed girls, Stu Helm has been drawing his  sexy women in  cartoon stoner realm for the enjoyment of a  worldwide following.  He has been a long-time contributor to the stoner movement with his down-to-earth  Lowbrow  style, featured in both magazines, posters and records. But it has not always been rosy cheeks for him, he has had to fight multinational Kraft Food back in 2001 because of his  King Velveeda pseudonym,  and ended up winning. Interview with a warrior.

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Baron : Who are you Stu Helm?
Stu Helm : I'm 43 years old, I was born in 1966, and grew up in the post  Vietnam war era on the NorthEast Coast of the United States.  My dad was a minister and my mom a scientist.  I was educated in the public school system, which did not exactly encourage a career in the arts. Some of my earliest memories of school are of the teachers telling me not to draw in the margins of my test papers.

I've always had a strong anti-establishment  pendant , and in 5th grade, I started a little newspaper with a friend of mine.  He wrote the articles, and I drew the  pictures. After our first issue, the school shut us down, because they didn't like a picture  I drew of one of the teachers.  Later on in High School, I butted heads with my art teacher, who found my work to be "too edgy."  She made me stay after class once, so that she could watch me destroy one of my projects in front of her.

Even in college, I had an issue during my Senior Show, when one of my professors decided that some of my  little naked cartoon ladies were too racy to display.  I pointed out that a life sized nude self-portrait of one of my classmates had been hanging in the showroom just prior to mine , but I guess it was different because it was an oil painting.  I eventually was able to convince my professor that little cartoons were just as valid an art form as big oil paintings, and he agreed that he had been wrong about it, so I got to hang my little nudes in the end.

After college, I started working for myself, using the pseudonym "King  Velveeda" to sign my artwork, and started a graphics business called Cheesy Graphics.  I've been working as a freelance illustrator and designer for about 14 years now.  I do custom art and graphics for

small businesses, schools and universities, corporations, organizations, bands,  as well as individuals.  It's a great career and I really love it!

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I started my career in Boston, and "made my bones" while living in Chicago.  I currently live in a small but awesome little city in the Smokey Mountains of Western North Carolina called Asheville.  I love it there!

B. : How would you describe your art?
S. H. : My artwork is cartoony.  It's characterized by thick black outlines, and shapes filled with solid colors.  My subject matter tends towards the underground  --  dope, girls, rock and roll music, monsters, hot rods  --  and I got my start professionally by drawing XXX-rated hardcore porno comics back in the 90's for John Howard's Horny Biker Slut and She-Male Trouble Comix (Last Gasp).  I don't do much porn anymore, but I still love to draw sexy ladies!

Ironically, because my style also lends itself to children's themes so well,  I do a lot of commercial work aimed for children.   One of my favorite clients is a local performer called Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, who plays "positive hip hop for kids."  He's a great guy and I get to do a lot of fun work for him, even though I'm a childless old bastard, who dislikes hip-hop, and once won an award in a Hater's Contest.

B. : Stu vs Kraft, what was the story and what was the outcome?
S. H. : In 2001 I was contacted over the phone by a lawyer working for Kraft Foods International, the biggest food company in the world.  Because of my  Internet presence, they had gotten wind of the fact that I'd been calling myself King VelVeeda, and they didn't like it because they felt that I was "tarnishing" the image of their own Velveeta processed cheese food product.  They asked me to cease using the name immediately.  I told them to fuck off.  They dragged me into Federal court, and I battled them for a year, first by myself, and then with the help of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CLBDF) and some really awesome lawyers who volunteered to work my case.

It was definitely one of the worst episodes of my life, and the Kraft lawyers were some of the biggest assholes I've ever met. Two-faced, lying sacks of shit.  After almost exactly a year, they offered to settle out of court, and I agreed.

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The terms were that I stop using the name, and they would give $10,000 to a charity of our choice.  We chose The Freedom to Read Foundation (part of the American Library Association), who in turn donated some of that back to CBLDF.

I went on with my life, and have been very happy to make a name for myself, using my real name, Stu Helm.  Kraft has gone on to continue producing  its disgusting, poisonous "food" that is responsible for everything from childhood obesity, to diabetes, to heart disease. Frankly, I'm glad to be rid of the name now, because I feel that the association with Kraft foods was tarnishing my reputation. :)

B. : What’s the hardest part of being an indie artist?
S. H. : The hardest thing that I do every day is stay focused and motivated. It helps that I love my job, but I also love smoking grass, playing video games, watching TV, jerking off, and fucking my life away, so it's sometimes difficult to stay on target and work a full day every day.  There's no boss telling me what to do and chewing my ass out if I don't do it.  As my own boss, I allow myself to slack-off when I can afford to, but most of the time, I have to stay on top of myself.

I try to work from 9am - 5pm Monday through Friday, so that I have some structure to my life.  It used to be that I had no structure at all, and that actually worked for me for a long time.  I got plenty of artwork done and was motivated all the time.  As I get older, though, I find that I need the structure in order to keep my life in balance. Work time is work time, and slack time is slack time.  Now I slack all weekend, and almost every night.

To achieve this balance, I invented a philosophy that I call "The Kenny-Dallas Lifestyle."  It's based on a friend's dog, who had two names.  When he was bad, she called him Kenny, and when he was good she called him Dallas.  I definitely have a Kenny and a Dallas inside

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of me, and I believe that both are valid, but Kenny needs to be held in check so that Dallas can make money and be a good businessman all week.  Then on the weekends, Kenny gets up onto the couch, and into the snacks, and generally makes a big mess that Dallas needs to clean up on Monday.

B. : Has the Internet and new technology changed your way to sell + promote + create?
S. H. : Without the Internet, I'm not sure what I would be doing.  It not only helps me to network, and meet people all over the world who need custom art and graphics, but it enables me to send high quality print files anywhere I need to for production.

I hand sketch and ink my artwork, then scan it and vector it using Adobe Illustrator.  From there I can add color, design elements, text, backgrounds, whatever I need, and then save it down and send it to my client.  The internet fucking rules for artists and I've been using it since it first started up.  My web site is cheesygraphics.com!

B. : What’s next?
S. H. : I don't like to talk about future projects, because that might jinx 'em, but I can tell you that I'm planning to continue doing exactly what I do every day:  Wake up, smoke a bunch of weed, and draw pictures for money!

www.cheesygraphics.com