Surrounded by chunks of flesh-colored clay, artist Jackie Cruse works hard to capture the face of Santa Claus—smiling eyes, the perfect tilt of the nose, and grandfatherly laugh lines that easily convey St. Nick’s traditional jolly spirit.
Father Christmas is a familiar face to Cruse, 35, of Post, Texas (pop. 3,768), who hand-sculpts and decorates lifelike Santas that range in size from 36 inches to more than 6 feet tall. But it’s the face of each creation that dictates its style and personality.
“I don’t really know what it’s going to be when I start,” Cruse says. “I just build it and let it develop itself. After I get started the face tells me what type of Santa it’s going to be. That’s what makes it so fun. The Santa pretty much develops itself.”
Cruse’s creations, which range in price from $250 to $3,500, come to life after weeks of work in the design studio he operates as part of his business, Creative Concepts by Jackie.
“They have personality,” he says. “They smile. They’re a lot of fun, and I think the faces speak for themselves.”
Cruse’s customers are astonished by his life-like creations. “I think he is so artistic in his sculpting of the faces,” says Linda Liner of Lubbock, who owns several of Cruse’s Santas. “Every character is very individual. The finished product—they look like they can speak to you.”
Putting the Wow! in Santa
After Cruse sculpts the face, a mold is cast, which is poured from a mixture of resin and porcelain. He then structures Santa’s body using what he calls a “secret process,” then covers it with a body stocking and mounts the creation to a wooden boot covered with vinyl. After the face is added and accessorized with the eyes and white beard, the figure is ready to be dressed.
“Dressing is the most fun part,” he says. “That’s when the Santa really begins to take shape—fun, whimsical, and over the top, but definitely beautiful, elegant and rich.”
Although he has some of the more intricate sewing work done by a seamstress, Cruse designs every piece of clothing his Santas wear and the accessories used to decorate the finished product. It’s important that each work has a “wow factor,” he says, and the only way to accomplish that is to ensure that each piece is unique, with fully lined coats and quality materials that will last a lifetime.
“Elegance in the fabric, whimsy in the face. The smile, the happy look, just like they’re going to speak to you,” he says.
Some of Cruse’s recent designs include a red-and-white traditional St. Nick; an all-white “winter wonderland” piece; and a pair of life-sized Clauses decked out in animal print. No two pieces are ever alike—different sizes, different shapes, different races.
“There’s a lot of love that goes into these things,” he says. “I don’t just throw my Santas together. I really am excited by the work. As it begins to develop and I finish out and accessorize them, that is so cool. I can’t wait to get to that part. They come to life when you put them with toys and packages and floral expressions.”
Down the White House chimney
Cruse’s passion for the holiday season began in his youth. Christmas was always his favorite time of the year, he says, but the highlight of the season wasn’t the opening of gifts or the big family meals.
“My grandmother would drive us around to see the Christmas lights, and I just loved it,” he says. “I still do it to this day. What started as my love for Christmas evolved into a love for Father Christmas.”
Cruse said his love for the holiday—its celebrations and decor—helped kindle his creative spirit, but it wasn’t until he was in Post High School that he was drawn to doing “creative and not-so-practical fun stuff.”
Before graduating, Cruse carved a niche for himself around his hometown when he began baking and decorating cakes for friends and family. Once word of his talents got out, he began taking orders from local residents who paid him to create specialty cakes for weddings, birthday parties and other events. Cruse eventually converted his cake-baking talents to candy making, entering a contest in 1988 with his design of an edible Southern colonial mansion. He won.
After earning a scholarship to the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt. (pop. 8,035), in 1991, Cruse helped prepare the cake for President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in January 1993. The cake, which fed 25,000 guests, featured several iconic images. It was Cruse who fashioned the sugar clay bluebonnets on the cake that represented the Lone Star state.
Cruse worked as a chef for five years after completing his culinary training in 1994, but soon began looking for another outlet through which to channel his creativity. He turned from sugar clay to sculpting clay, and in 1996 he began designing and creating life-sized Santas, Easter rabbits and other seasonal pieces. He has crafted custom pieces for delivery to distinguished addresses such as the White House, the Texas governor’s mansion, and the offices of the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.
Success led Cruse and a partner to sell their business to Boyd’s Bears, where they continued to design Santas for several years.
Santa meets Dr. Seuss
In 2006, Cruse started Creative Concepts by Jackie, a business that includes a myriad of creations fashioned from a variety of media—sculpted rabbits, elves, and other whimsical characters, plus Easter baskets and tabletop items that reflect the theme for any season or holiday. And while his Santas represent the foundation of his business, Cruse is working to expand his Christmas items to include blown-glass ornaments, tree skirts and runners, wreaths, garlands, and other items traditionally used in holiday decor.
“I’d one day like to be a household name in Christmas design,” he says. “I want to create designs that give people variety. And people are always looking for variety at Christmas.”
In keeping with his quest for variety, Cruse has some interesting ideas for creating nontraditional Santas. “I’m looking forward to doing Santas in lime green, pink, and electric blue with polka-dots,” he says with a grin. “Whimsical candy canes and lime-green dolls with sort of a Dr. Seuss feel. Oh, wouldn’t that be great?”
Cruse limits the number of life-sized Santas, his most time-consuming pieces, to 10 or 15 a year, but he also works to complete smaller creations. It’s a job that commands much of his time, but he says he feels fortunate to have been given the ability and opportunity to do such work.
“I like to design and I like doing Christmas,” he says. “I like Santa Clauses, even though I work my fingers to the bone. It’s worth it when it’s all said and done. The bottom line is this: If people see one of my Santas and he puts smiles on their faces, I’ve won. I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.”