Welcome to the third installment of Spotlight on Disney Fine Artist. Today, the spotlight is on Sue Kruse.


Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Sue Kruse, I’m married (forever) to Bill, the mom of two grown daughters (Sarah – aka Pinkdonuts on Instagram), who is a mom and a bow maker, and Holly, who lives in Chicago and is an assistant to the artist Nick Cave. I’m a grandmother to Sarah’s two cute kiddies, and I have two dogs, Eleanor (a pug) and Ozzy (a Pomeranian/Dachshund mix).

My business is called Madame Leota Designs. I named it that for a couple of reasons – my favorite Disneyland attraction is the Haunted Mansion and my middle name is actually Leota (six generations of women in my family have had that middle name). I do a variety of things, draw, paint, make jewelry. But currently, my primary focus is designing and creating unique Mickey ears for people to wear at Disney parks. I like to combine interesting fabrics (some, I have designed and had made and some, I have searched for), with resin pieces I attach to the bows on the ears. The resin pieces are not something I buy, they start out as tiny sculptures I create – I make a mold from the sculpt and then cast the piece in resin (so it’s light enough in weight to attach to the bow). After that I individually hand paint each piece before it goes on the ears.

At what age did you begin?
I’ve been creating since I was a small child. I can’t remember not drawing or making stuff. One of my earliest memories is taking crayons and drawing on my bedroom wall. Instead of punishing me for doing that, my mom decided to encourage my artistic tendencies and together, we got to work and created a crayon landscape on the wall, turning what could have been a real negative into a positive.

What inspired you to start?
I can’t really answer that, it’s just something in me, I have to make stuff. I always have. I always will. There isn’t much that’s more thrilling to me than walking into an art supply store, the scent of the paint, the paper, the array of color, all the possibilities of things that can be made just waiting for someone to make them. It’s really exciting. You want to find the way to my heart, don’t buy me diamonds, give me an Art Supply Warehouse gift card. A Disney gift card will do nicely too.

How do you work?
Some people sketch everything out and know exactly what they’re going to do before they begin, but I’ve never liked working like that. For me, if I sketch it all out, then I’ve already done it and I don’t want to continue with it. So I start with an idea that’s of interest to me. It usually involves the Haunted Mansion. For example, I’m currently working on a Hatbox Ghost design for Mickey ears. It started, not with the reintroduction of the Hatbox Ghost into Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, but way before that with a figurine of the Hatbox Ghost that sits in my library. One day I was bored, needed something to keep my hands busy and so I grabbed paper & a Col-Erase pencil and started sketching Hattie, just his head. Eventually that little sketch got turned into fabric which was a repeat pattern of the Hatbox Ghost’s head. I liked the way the fabric turned out and decided Hattie would be turned into ears. But I needed fabric for the bow each pair of ears must have. I hunted for a nice damask patterned fabric (which seemed a suitable thing for something one would find in the Haunted Mansion), in the right colors to complement the fabric I had made. When I found it, I worked up a prototype using an ear pattern I had designed long ago.

To me, ears are kind of plain without some adornment in the center of the bow so I started thinking about what would go with the Hatbox Ghost and I decided it should be Hattie’s head enshrined in his transparent hatbox. At that point I set to work sculpting Hattie’s head, minus his top hat. I used a bakeable clay called Sculpey for that.  The head needed to be small because it had to fit inside the hatbox which couldn’t be too big or it would look weird and disproportionate on the bow (the head ended up being one-inch tall). Once I had a head I liked, I made a silicon mold and cast a head to see what it looked like. I did this several times, each time fixing what I didn’t like till I had a head I was happy with. Then I started the same process all over again to make the hatbox.

Once I had both molds, I could figure out what colors to use to paint each piece. The head has several layers of paint in varying shades of gray, black, white, and gold (you can’t forget Hattie’s gold tooth!). The hatbox, I thought should be gray to look ghostly, but that turned out to be all wrong and I ended up using gray, teal, white and silver.

Then it was time to put Hattie’s head in the box. The head has to be molded in resin, which then has to be cured and painted. Once all that’s done, the head was sealed with a clear matte spray finish and left to completely dry. At that point the hatbox got started by pouring a thin layer of clear resin into the hatbox mold. Once it began to set up (hours later), Hattie’s head could go in the box. After letting it set up a bit more and making sure the head wasn’t going to move, the mold got filled up the rest of the way with clear resin. When all that was completely cured (I left it alone for 24 hours), I painted the portions of the hatbox not meant to be clear, sealed it and attached it to the bow on a pair of ears.

And that’s pretty much how I work. There’s a lot of trial and error to get a piece to the point I’m happy with it. And then there’s a lot of work that goes into every single piece I sell. It’s quite a process and takes me a while to make a pair of ears. So when a person buys my ears, I like to think that what they are really getting, is a little art work that is different from any other pair of ears out there. And because I individually hand paint each resin piece, even no two pairs of my ears are exactly alike.

What are your favorite mediums to work with?
I really like constructing things the best, no matter what the medium is I’m using to construct with. I also love painting in watercolor and drawing with Prismacolor colored pencils. But my likes change all the time. Three years ago I was soldering silver pieces together and combining them with vintage tintypes and resin to create jewelry. Last week I was experimenting with linocuts. I recently bought supplies to play with monoprints. I have some paper clay sitting on my work table that’s begging to be turned into a pumpkin man.  I’m always experimenting.

What’s your background?
I grew up in Whittier, Ca., and was lucky enough to go to high school at a time when arts were important and there was funding for them. The high school I went to had a fantastic arts program and that was kind of the center of my world when I was a teenager.  I thought I’d go on to collage and get a degree to teach art (I went to Cal State University, Fullerton) but once I got into student teaching, discovered I didn’t like teaching very much and switched to graphic design. Somehow, I ended up being an antique dealer instead of a graphic designer though. I worked out of one of the larger stores in Old Towne Orange for nearly 20 years. My art education didn’t go to waste during that time as I got to set up window displays and do graphic design for the store. The Disney Imagineers did a lot of shopping at that store so it was always exciting for me to help them with purchases (and quiz them on where those purchases were going to end up). Though a lot of things have moved around in Disneyland over the years, I can still walk around the park and spot stuff that came from the store I worked in.

Favorite piece that you’ve done?
It’s usually the current piece I’m working on. Last spring I immersed in Harry Potter because I was going to Wizarding World and I painted a miniature portrait of Severus Snape that I turned into a pendant necklace and wore when I was down there. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out and still really favor it. Right now I’m working on a miniature painting of the Headless Horseman that I started a year ago but got distracted and never finished. I’m going to Florida again soon to go to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and the Horseman was the main draw for wanting to go. So the miniature must be finished! I really love how it’s looking.

And, I do have a soft spot for the Small World ears I created. I have to admit, I don’t really like Small World much. Maybe if Tim Burton had designed the attraction I’d love it, but as it is, it’s a little too cute for me – except at Christmas, love it at Christmas, it’s a glittering confection of cheer that’s hard to resist. I usually don’t take on commissions, mostly because I find it hard to work on things I have no interest in and invariably if I say yes to a commission, the subject matter is something that’s not interesting for me. That’s how it went when a good customer of mine asked me to make Small World ears for her to celebrate her birthday and I said yes. I ended up being pleasantly surprised though at how much fun those ears were to design.

Favorite Disneyland Memory?
Oh gosh, there are so many! I’m four years older than Disneyland so I’ve been going there most of my life and all of Disneyland’s life. My grandfather took me there a few months after the park opened, although I don’t remember that visit at all. Luckily though I have a rare souvenir photo of me that day (I hate having my picture taken so very few exist), looking very much like a little Shirley Temple, wearing a coonskin cap (which my mother tells me I wore till it fell apart), standing next to a Davy Crockett mannequin. A few memories I love are, riding the Flying Saucers, getting the little samples of free vitamins at Upjohn Pharmacy on Main Street (now the Fortuosity Shop), eating tuna sandwiches on the pirate ship that used to be in Fantasyland (they had swords in them!), watching Mickey and Minnie ride in the last Skyway bucket ever to glide through the air over Disneyland, seeing my daughter march down Main Street with her school band, every performance of Festival of Fools I ever went to, working in the Emporium (I was briefly a castmember) and walking out onto Main Street late at night, long after the park had closed to see all the activity it takes to get the park ready for the next day’s guests, watching the 50th anniversary fireworks at a press event with Marty Sklar and his family (he won’t remember me, I was just someone sitting next to him, but I sure won’t forget him), having dinner at Club 33 one December night and then being walked to the main gate by a Club 33 castmember because the park was closed, and coming upon the Candlelight choir practicing in front of the train station (it was like being in heaven and running into a choir of angels). So many, many, wonderful memories!

What art do you most identify with?
Impressionism. I love Monet madly. I was lucky enough to get to sit in his garden and paint a few summers ago. And although I’m not really into Modern Art or Abstraction, I really love the work of Cy Twombly and of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Twombly takes what is essentially scribbles and makes them sing. And Basquiat, he was a troubled person but his work and the way he used color amazes me.

What’s your strongest memory of your childhood that relates to Disney?
My dad worked for the telephone company and every year they’d have a General Telephone night at Disneyland where the park was closed except to General Telephone folks. It was pretty glorious because the park would be almost empty so we could do everything easily. When we left I always had to have a Mickey balloon, a map (the big fold out ones you had to buy) and a glow in the dark Tinker Bell wand, which looked nothing like today’s wands, but what I wouldn’t give to have one of those old, cheesy (by today’s standards) wands now. I think I lived for those yearly trips.

What is your favorite Disney Character and why?
Clopin. He’s not in the film much but he’s the reason I love and adore Hunchback of Notre Dame. First of all, he’s French and I love France. He’s an outsider and I always love the outsiders, the misunderstood people. He can sing – have you heard him hit that high D? He’s colorful. He’s a bit of a rogue. And he’s also the reason I know my two best friends. I met them at the old Disneyland show, Festival of Fools in 1996. Like finding a spouse, you cannot go looking for a best friend, it either happens or it doesn’t. It’s kismet. The three of us have been friends for nearly 20 years and have become family in a real sense of the word. And all because we each loved Clopin and had Clopin puppets we carried around with us.

Do you have a Disney artist you most identify with or admire?
Tim Burton. I love his particular oeuvre. I don’t draw like him at all but I identify with being the outsider, the weird person, and the worlds he creates. I’d have no problem living in most of those worlds. I’m not sure I identify with them but I definitely admire Marc Davis, Rolly Crump, Ward Kimball, and Mary Blair. Mary Blair’s use of color and shape was pretty amazing.


To see more of Sue’s work, please visit her on Etsy Madame Leota Designs or Instagram MadameLeota

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