Doc exploring artistic vs. corporate expression premieres at Underground Film Fest

Before the recent spate of allegations about the adverse health effects of their products, Kraft Food Holdings had another adversary, in the unlikely guise of Wicker Park cartoonist Stu Helm.

In 2002 Kraft sued Helm over his use of the name King Velveeda. The company asserted that Helm’s art tarnished the wholesome image of their Velveeta cheese products.

The new documentary “The King, the Lawyers and the Cheese” follows the court case and its personal and legal ramifications for Helm, exploring perceptions of erotic art and the tension between personal expression and corporate intellectual property. The 43-minute film has its world premiere Aug. 30 at the 10th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival.

“I hope people who see this film will ask themselves, are we comfortable letting corporations have this much control over our lives?” said filmmaker Brigid Maher. “The rights of individuals have become more and more limited. There’s more and more corporate pressure to limit the rights of artists, raising issues of fair use in music as well as images.”

Helm’s art ranges from children’s illustrations for the Texas Board of Education to political satire to erotic cartoons. It was the sexual imagery, coupled with the name “Velveeda,” that raised Kraft’s ire.

“They were drawing on people’s stereotypes about erotic art, claiming it was sexist and produced negative images of women,” Maher said. “But in examining Stu’s work I found that he draws women of all color and body types. It demonstrates a huge respect for women in all their shapes and sizes.”

Helm initially represented himself in the case, then found a pro bono attorney through the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The case was eventually settled, with Kraft making a donation to the Freedom to Read Foundation and Helm agreeing to stop using the name for commercial purposes. He now signs his work Stu Helm, and uses the moniker The Unknown Artist online.

Maher financed the film through a faculty development grant from Columbia College, where she teaches in the film and video department; a grant from the Chicago Underground Film Fund; and through fundraisers held by her nonprofit production company, Tiny Leaps Productions.

Maher co-wrote and directed the 2000 narrative film “Adrift in the Heartland,” about the cultural impact of the friendship between a Palestinian woman and an African American social worker. Maher got her MFA in radio, television and film from Northwestern University.

“The King, the Lawyers and the Cheese” is edited by and features the animation of Brad Cowan, and music by local bands The Busy Kids, PAL, and the Forgotten Four.

The doc screens Saturday, Aug. 30 at 8:45 p.m., and Tue, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m., at Landmark Century Center, 2828 N. Clark. Learn more about Maher’s company Tiny Leaps Productions at See Helm’s work at Learn more about the festival at
-by Ed M. Koziarski,