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County native receives award nomination for graphic design work

Unicoi County native Karen Key was recently nominated for an International Bluegrass Music Association award for her graphic design work. Key designed the album cover art for the album “Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition.”
(Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

Award shows like the Grammys, the Oscars and the Tonys celebrate success by artists. Many people who watch these award shows often dream of attending these events and being nominated for such an award.

For fans of bluegrass music, the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards (IBMAs) are the equivalent of the aforementioned awards. Recently, one of Erwin’s own was nominated for an IBMA Award.

Karen Key was nominated for her work on “Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition.” Key was nominated in the “Best Graphic Design” category for her artwork for the album cover art. The artwork was inspired by the music and liner notes from the album itself.

“I went through all the liner notes and listened to the music to capture the feel of the artwork,” Key told The Erwin Record.

Upon listening to the music and reading the liner notes that were written by East Tennessee State University’s Ted Olson, who was nominated for a Grammy for the liner notes, Key was inspired.

“The hand lettering really evokes a certain feeling that is parallel to traditional ballads,” Key said of album’s artwork.

To assist with the artwork, Key worked with Michael Mullan, an illustrator based out of Vermont.

Being nominated was a huge deal for Key and her family.

“My husband, Andy, and I got all dressed up and attended the ceremony in Raleigh, North Carolina and it was a lot of fun,” Key said.

While attending the awards show, Key witnessed bluegrass history being made.

“We got to see Ricky Skaggs and the Kentucky Thunder get inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and perform with Marty Stuart, that was the highlight,” Key said.

The nomination shows IBMA’s commitment to the arts.

“It was truly such an honor to be nominated for an IBMA amongst other talented designers, and I’m thrilled this association is recognizing graphic design as a category, as it often gets overlooked,” Key said.

In a visual world, imagery sells.

“We make these albums look beautiful before the consumer hears one note of the music, and I’m happy to have been a part of that recognition,” Key said.

The IBMA nomination isn’t Key’s first nomination or award.

“I’ve won two Public Lands Alliance awards for our biannual newsletter, Bearpaw and Smokies Life magazine,” Key stated.

The Public Lands Alliance Awards hold a special place in Key’s heart.

“This was exciting because we were up against products from the other big guys – Yellowstone and Yosemite,” Key said.

Becoming a graphic artist was the result of a change in major while attending college for Key. Key joined her sister, Sharon, at the University of Tennessee to follow in her sister’s footsteps. According to Key, her sister was preparing to make lots of money upon graduating with a degree in industrial engineering.

“I like math and science and she’s gonna be making a lot of money, sounds like a good major to me,” Key said of following her sister’s lead.

Key quickly reevaluated her options.

“Well, after my first semester my GPA was a 2.0 and not because I didn’t study or partied too much, I was actually spending all-nighters in the library and really working hard, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me,” Key said.

Key was at a crossroads and needed to decide what she wanted to do long term.

“I knew that I loved art, but didn’t want to major in painting or drawing, so my mom suggested graphic design as an option,” she said.

It was after Key signed up for the graphic design program that she realized she had made the right decision.

“As soon as I got into the program, I knew it was where I belonged, this was my calling and these were my people,” Key said of the graphic design program.

Upon graduating in 2006, Key found herself working for a public relations firm in Knoxville, but soon found her current employer.

“I was wearing a suit every day and working on gas station advertisements, so when I saw the Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) job become available, I jumped on the opportunity,” Key said.

According to Key, GSMA is a nonprofit organization that supports Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s scientific, historical and interpretive activities by providing educational products and services to park visitors. Key feels she is making a difference with her current employer.

“It feels like I’m using my skills for the prosperity of an amazing place, and I love the idea of communicating to park visitors, so they can pass down their appreciation and knowledge of the natural world to their loved ones,” Key said of working with GSMA.

Growing up in Unicoi County proved to be a motivator in Key’s artistic style.

“I’m quite certain I got this job because my style is very much inspired by where I grew up,” she said.

To say Unicoi County had an impact on Key’s career would be an understatement.

“I think it’s no coincidence that our house was about five minutes from the Cherokee National Forest and now I am working in the most visited national park in the country,” Key said.

For those interested in graphic design from Unicoi County, Key has some sound advice.

“Start with paper, always, you can literally buy a logo on the Internet for $10, but the work and idea aren’t there,” Key said.

If you are having trouble coming up with ideas, Key has a suggestion.

“If I’m stuck or can’t think of a good idea, I lace up my hiking boots and that always helps, for someone who lives in Unicoi County you should be inspired by all the beauty that surrounds you,” Key said.

Although her career and life keeps her in Seymour, Tennessee, Key often makes it back to Erwin.

“I make it back several times a year, as my parents, two grandmothers (one of which my daughter Violet is named after), and lots of family and friends still live there and I really enjoy visiting,” Key told The Erwin Record.

Key’s sister also finds time to go back home as well.

“My sister Sharon sells handmade jewelry at the Apple Festival, a hobby she’s picked up outside of her industrial engineering career, so I try to make it back for that,” Key said.

Key just finished designing a really popular book by David Brill, “Into the Mist: Tales of Death Disaster, Mishaps and Misdeeds, Misfortune and Mayhem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” According to Key the book is a very interesting read. Key stays busy with many projects going on currently.

“I’m currently working on designing Butterflies and Moths of the Smokies field guide that will probably come out just in time for butterfly season next year,” Key said.

Key also oversees the design and production of the park newspaper, Smokies Guide, that comes out four times a year. Throughout the year, Key works on designing some of the stories for that Smokies Life magazine that is mailed twice a year as one of many GSMA member benefits. It can also be purchased in visitor centers and online, with sales helping support Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you are interested, you can become a member of GSMA at

Much like the artwork of Karen Key, Erwin is being recognized.

“I love seeing the growth Erwin’s making with the farmer’s market, Union Street Taproom, Erwin Outdoor Supply and NOLI,” Key said.

Key went on to acknowledge that it is an exciting time to be from a small town.

“Erwin will always have a special place in my heart,” she said.

Along with Erwin, Key recognizes others that inspire her.

“I’d like to acknowledge my biggest fans, husband Andy, daughter Violet and my parents, Greg and Susie Swinehart, who you’ll probably find driving around Erwin looking for some stadium lights to go to any Unicoi County High School sporting event they can support,” Key said.