Knoxville’s Status Serigraph and Loch & Key find a national niche

Knoxville increasingly has become a city of surprisingly innovative businesses. While many Knoxvillians don’t realize the companies are locally based, both the poster/branding company Status Serigraph and the video-production company Loch & Key have gained national recognition.

The two companies share a love of music and their founders continue a friendship that they have fostered since their college days. Status Serigraph founder Justin Helton designed Loch & Key’s logo and art elements, and he can be spotted in Loch & Key’s recap videos of the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky (for which Helton also designed the logo and posters).

Both companies have succeeded by way of their willingness to learn, their contributions to the community and their tenacity. Here are their stories:

Music always fueled the visions of Status Serigraph’s Justin Helton

Justin Helton stands in the new Status Serigraph office/shop at 514 W. Jackson Ave., surrounded by his work. Bright, colorful posters Helton created for My Morning Jacket, Phish, the Grateful Dead and other artists are stacked, displayed in bins and hang on the walls. You’ll also find posters he designed for the region’s largest music festivals like Bonnaroo, Forecastle and Shaky Knees. Take one step inside the showroom, and you get it: Helton has helped revive the idea of concert posters as art, and there could be few people more appropriate for the task.

“I worked with [Knoxville-based concert promoters] AC Entertainment for years, and I loved working there, but I did this stuff on the side,” says Helton. “I knew doing design and music-business stuff was definitely what I wanted to do. It grew and grew … ”

When Helton finally made the decision to go into business for himself full-time in 2012, he knew it was a risk. “I had a daughter already, but literally the day I told AC Entertainment that I was leaving, I came home and my wife told me she was pregnant with my son,” he says. “So it was, ‘Oh, man. This HAS to work now!’”

Helton’s artistic path kicked into high gear when he was child himself. “I can remember being in the second grade and drawing little spaceship cars with my friends,” he recalls. “I always drew things, but I think I really started drawing more seriously about when ‘The Simpsons’ came on. I would draw the Simpsons all the time.” Skateboard designs also caught his eye, and he realized people were actually getting paid for unusual art.

At Farragut High School, Helton enjoyed art classes, but an art teacher who didn’t appreciate his talking so much in class made it clear that she didn’t want him in her advanced course. That led to Helton enrolling in a graphic design class, where he excelled. He followed that up by taking computer-design classes, and computers became an essential tool in his art. He enrolled at the University of Tennessee, learned printmaking and also worked at the Mellow Mushroom on Cumberland Avenue.

It was Mellow Mushroom regular Shawn Kimbro who first commissioned Helton to create a poster for his band, Mountain Soul, though he also had gotten the attention of AC. “I knew the group Digable Planets was doing a show at the Orange Peel [in Asheville, North Carolina], and I made a mock poster,” says Helton. “I sent [AC Entertainment founder] Ashley Capps an email and said, ‘I see all the bright pink and bright green photocopied posters you guys put around town, and I honestly think I could do something that would look a lot better.’”

That led to regular posters for AC shows and the now-defunct Old City club Blue Cats. Helton would work with the musicians to sell posters at the concerts and split the profits. “They’d see the posters at the merch table sell out, and they’d walk out with a handful of cash, and I started getting repeat business,” he says.

Helton’s first commission was from Phish, his favorite band. It was quite a milestone. “I got an email from their art director, and she said, ‘I have this artist who dropped out and can’t finish the posters. Do you think you can help me out?’ I stayed up all night and did the design, sent it to a printer who printed up the next day. The printer overnighted them to me, and then we overnighted them to the show.

“Their poster collectors are very serious. I went from a guy who makes posters to a guy who makes posters where people are serious about collecting the work.” That became even more so when Helton was commissioned to create posters for the Grateful Dead’s 50th-anniversary concerts.

Product design has become a part of Helton’s business, as well. He’s designed labels for Sugarlands Distilling Co., HGTV and Great Raft Brewing, and he created labels for a line of liquor endorsed by The Flaming Lips. Helton says his artistic inspirations come from the great 1960s poster designers, including Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson and Victor Moscso, along with artist Andy Warhol and more-current designer Shepard Fairey. Like some of those artists, he incorporates pieces of public-domain historical art – both for its beauty and because it’s quicker than drawing each element himself. Still, each piece is inspired by the artist.

“Typically, I listen to the music and look at song names, lyrics, album names – any kind of reference to anything I could get a visual cue from,” says Helton. “Some, like the Grateful Dead, there are already many visual cues that you can pull from. Sometimes bands have ideas. They’ve got some sort of theme, or the show is in a certain city. If a show is in Washington, D.C., I can pull visual elements from so many visual icons.” Analyze his poster for My Morning Jacket, a band from Louisville, Kentucky, and you’ll note a horse, bourbon barrels and other such references.

Helton’s posters are limited editions, ranging in price from $30 to $275. Once the run is over, they are not reproduced. And they’re available only at shows or from Status Serigraph. He also sells caps and clothing with his designs. He hopes that with Nathan Johnson, who acts as retail manager and fulfills orders, working more hours, the retail side of the business will be able to be open longer and on Saturdays.

Helton says part of his business model is trying not to be too exclusive. “Mountain Soul doesn’t have the same budget as the Grateful Dead does,” he explains. “There’s a number I need to hit in order to do a project, but pretty much, if you’re a serious band, I am someone you can go to and say, ‘I need a poster or some T-shirts done.’ I try and be approachable.”

The new, incredibly inviting retail space is open Monday through Friday from 10AM – 4PM and 12PM – 5PM on Saturdays. You can also visit www.statusserigraph.com to browse through Helton’s work.

Knoxville the catalyst for Loch & Key Productions

It’s a rare late afternoon at the new offices of Loch & Key Productions on Central Street when things are quiet. Business founders Andy Feliu and Eli Hechmer sit at long table with sunshine filtering in from outside and the slight smell of fresh paint lingering in the air.

You’ve doubtless seen the company’s work, even if you haven’t noticed the production credit. Since its founding in 2011, Loch & Key has created videos for Covenant Health, Ripley’s Aquarium, Travel Channel, HGTV and many other businesses. Still, the images that most people would probably recognize best are the company’s video recaps of Bonnaroo, Forecastle, Rhythm N’ Blooms and other music events.

“Most people know us for festivals, but we cast a really wide net,” says Feliu. “Education and healthcare is our bread and butter, and we’re starting to do a lot more commercial work.”

Just during the week when this interview was conducted, the company’s 13 full-time employees were working on more than 20 projects, including HGTV’s “Way to Grow” and “Easy Does It,” which the network features on YouTube. The videos get millions of views.

Both graduates of the University of Tennessee, Feliu and Hechmer met while working at Knox Ivi, the short-lived Internet channel that had a studio on Market Square. When it closed, the two threw in their lot together. Feliu already had his own video production company AlphaBeta, which had made videos for a few music acts. Continuing that theme with Loch & Key, Feliu and Hechmer created music videos, including the “Close Shave” series helmed by Justin Cipriani, one of the company’s first hires. The company handpicked select artists and created the videos free of charge.

“Eli and I both had this great love of music, and it felt cool to be a part of it and contribute to it,” says Feliu. “I don’t play an instrument, but we were actually able to contribute to something we love so much and to be able to do it in the local scene.”

Loch & Key also filmed Widespread Panic’s 2011 Halloween show in Chicago, which was released on DVD. The music videos helped land the company the chance to record the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2012, and later Bonnaroo, both of which are promoted by the aforementioned AC Entertainment. Both Feliu and Hechmer were longtime festivalgoers and admired the cameramen documenting the events.

“I think we both went to a lot of shows where we went, ‘How do you get to be THAT guy? I want to be like him.’” says Feliu.

It took some time for the festival promoters to recognize that the videos Loch & Key were creating could be utilized to create social-media content that could keep a festival audience or potential attendees engaged throughout the year. At the same time that Feliu and Hechmer were convincing music promoters of their skill, the two were live-streaming Ice Bears hockey games, a gig that provided them with a regular paycheck.

“We’re both big sports fans, so that was easy,” says Hechmer. “‘Music and sports? Maybe we can make this thing happen.’ It was a lot more stressful, hectic and intense to broadcast. You still get a lot of that hectic stuff at a festival, but you have a little more time to breathe and be creative and not just be under the gun.”

Other early clients included Covenant Health, Ripley’s Aquarium and the Island in Pigeon Forge. “We kind of made our livings on getting these opportunities and making the most of them and converting them into long-term clients,” says Feliu. “It’s very rare that we have a one-and-done project. Almost every one of our clients we’ve held on to, which we take a whole lot of pride in.”

“It was also over-delivering on almost every project,” adds Hechmer. “I think that’s opened up a whole lot of opportunities for us.”

“A lot of our growth has been parallel with the growth of social media and marketing video content,” says Hechmer. “The HGTV thing was kind of the perfect fit for us. They were just starting up their digital content side, so they were looking for vendors who understood how this content works and engaging short-form content that can generate a lot of views.”

HGTV producer Jessyca Williams guided Feliu and Hechmer with regard to what companies would want. “As much as we are experts at creating social-media content,” begins Hechmer, “it doesn’t mean that we are experts …” “… At gardening or refinishing that end table,” finishes Feliu.

Both men credit the staff for much of the company’s success. The two say they took the opposite philosophy of some companies for which they had worked in the past. “Once we started having employees, it was, ‘Treat everybody with a lot of respect,’” says Feliu. “We invest a lot of time in our people, and they invest a lot in us. We’ve been given a lot of business advice that we’ve completely ignored. We’ve completely fought the idea that you can’t be friends with your employees. When people are happy and respected and excited about their work, they do a better job and represent you better. We have built a very close-knit team, and we’ve been very fortunate in finding these people. Some have had more experience than others, but everyone contributes on a very high level and they just make us look good.”

“And music festivals, HGTV, whatever – our whole team gets involved,” says Hechmer. “We don’t compartmentalize anyone and say, ‘This is all you can do. You’re only doing festivals’ or ‘You’re only doing corporate video stuff.’” “If someone has been in the edit bay for a while, we’ll make sure to get them out into the field,” adds Feliu.

While the company is in the planning stages of opening a dedicated second unit in Nashville, it’s Knoxville where Loch & Key feels connected. The company made a series of videos for Visit Knoxville that highlighted features of the city, as well as videos for HGTV’s “Urban Oasis” about why Knoxville was a great place to live.

Hechmer says it’s been wonderful to watch the creative community in the city grow and expand and to be a part of it. Feliu agrees: “I’m from a suburb of Chicago … I would’ve thought after graduating I’d move back home, but I got to see the growth firsthand and how cool it’s gotten. Every time we do a project with someone in New York or Chicago or Seattle, they’ll say, ‘So, why Knoxville?’ We can’t say enough good things about Knoxville and how far it’s come.”

Although music projects comprise only a tenth of Loch & Key’s current workload, both Feliu and Hechmer continue their love and support of music. Both say they will continue to do free projects to help worthy artists. “I don’t want people to ever think that just because we’ve had some success that we’re not available for the community,” says Feliu. “I think I figured out last year that I may have finally done as many paid projects as free projects.”

Check out lochandkeyproductions.com to see the crew’s work.

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