We had the good fortune of connecting with Kellie Krueger and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kellie, what was your thought process behind starting your own business? Before creating my business, I had always worked full-time service sector jobs, like waitressing, in order to pay the bills, while squeezing in artistic endeavors (singing, painting) in the margins. I hold a Master’s and part of a Doctoral degree in Voice (I’m an operatic contralto), and so I originally came to LA 6 years ago to pursue Opera. I sang in restaurants and in very small, unpaid productions. I would paint at night just for my own enjoyment and expression; I had never considered selling my art or attempting to make a business of it. To be honest, I never held the belief that any of my artistic interests could ever make me money. 11 years of waiting tables was the only consistent money I had ever made, during my degrees and after, and so this is how my brain was programmed. I got fed up with serving (any server can tell you how extremely draining it can be), and so I tried restaurant management and private event planning for a year. Feeling that I had no time at all for artistic outlets, I moved into retail management for several years, which gave me a bit more time to paint and sing (at this point I began singing with a metal band and in weekly rock jams) – but I still felt I was selling myself short of pursuing the things that truly matter to me. I decided that I wanted to find a way to live and work as an artist.
So, November of 2019 was the last time I held a “job job.” I survived on several part-time gigs, with the intention of incorporating as much art and music into my life as possible. Then the pandemic hit, CA shut down, and I was able to receive unemployment from the jobs I lost. This was the first time I had ever had time to really sit with myself, breathe, and take a look at my life. This was the first time I could look at the capitalist rat-race from outside of it, and from a place of relative financial safety. I know the pandemic hit so many people negatively – but for me, it was the first time that I could truly relax. I had time to reinvest in my own mental health and true interests, and to just play with possibility. I sang, and learned to play guitar, and began painting again. I created Whiskey Witch Wares out of my own desire to step into my artistic joy, and to begin creating a life which feels more authentic. It’s an amazing feeling to connect with people over something I created, and which resonates with them too.
Do you have a budget? How do you think about your personal finances and how do you make lifestyle and spending decisions? I definitely have a budget. I live with my two kitties (Cougar and Bazzle) in a studio apartment in Koreatown, and so I must factor in rent, utilities, cell phone bill, car insurance, food, gas, vet expenses, and student loans. I also must factor in money spent on creating my originals and my art prints – which is quite a high overhead because I use a local print shop (shoutout to POV Fine Art Printing in downtown LA!) where I have my originals carefully scanned in, and have my prints done on gorgeous, thick paper in archival ink. I paint my originals on canvases and wood plaques with professional grade acrylic paints, so I factor in replenishing art supplies as well. I ship my originals in handmade boxes, since flatter boxes to fit canvases / plaques aren’t usually available, so shipping supplies are another factor.
Creating my small art business has taken a lot of shadow work, and work on healing limiting beliefs around making and spending money. During the pandemic, I had time to take an online course with wealth coach Lauren Allen (@lusciouslifestylebylauren on IG), who (along with a badass group of female entrepreneurs from all over the world) helped me understand some underlying fears, beliefs, and past experiences that were holding me back from pursuing my true passions. I now believe that wealth only amplifies the qualities of the people making it. For example, if you are a narcissist who becomes wealthy, those negative qualities become amplified and can be incredibly destructive, as recent political events show. But if you are a person of good intention who becomes wealthy, you can contribute to collective healing (Oprah, Brene Brown). I create my art with the intention of bringing personal freedom, liberation, comfort, and an embrace of one’s dark side (shadow side) – and so I hope that as my wealth grows, I can light up my small corner of the world.
When it comes to personal finances, I am organized and I have learned to trust myself. I believe that the money comes to me best when I share my passions with the world. Money made through my art feels personal, and healing. I am proud and feel the privilege of being able to provide the essentials (food, rent, utilities) for myself. I celebrate small things like being able to make a car registration payment – I think it’s important to be grateful for these things. I also enjoy spending money on gifts to friends, and on gifts to myself from meaningful sources (small businesses, local, women-owned, and POC-owned businesses, other artists). My lifestyle and spending decisions originate in financial responsibility, but also make room for what will bring me joy (good food, traveling to new places, purchases on jewelry…I have a bit of a ring & shoe problem haha). I think it’s important to consider the source of where you buy from, and the thought and intention behind others’ creations, as well as the personal connection / memory a purchase symbolizes. Exchanging money is exchanging talent and energy.
Risk taking: how do you think about risk, what role has taking risks played in your life/career? I think risk is necessary, along with failure. Every time we try something new, we risk losing stability in some area of life – it could even upend an entire way of living; but risk can also expose us to something we love, a hidden talent or passion, a way of connecting with other people. Risk and vulnerability require courage, and create a more authentic way of living.
Risk and vulnerability have played huge roles in my life. There have been many times in my life when I thought I was doing what I was “supposed” to do, only to realize I wasn’t listening to myself and needed to change course to do what I longed to try next. As an example, once I finished my Bachelor’s in Voice, and after taking a few years to teach voice lessons and perform in different parts of Colorado, I thought I was supposed to go get a Master’s degree (all opera companies tell you they won’t even hear you audition without one). So I did. Then, because I was still a waitress (now with enormous student loan debt) who believed auditions were unaffordable – and that my voice wasn’t “good enough” yet – I thought I was supposed to get my Doctoral degree. So I began it. And since I’d been in a relationship for about 4 years, I decided we were supposed to get married. In the midst of my first year of a DMA in Voice, and my engagement, something inside me began to panic. I had lined up and checked all the academic boxes, paid the tuition, spoken the proposal (I was the one who proposed), but I felt I was watching my body from outside of it. I still didn’t believe that my voice was “good enough.” And no one was speaking about mental health in grad school at that time. I assumed I was at fault, not my overly-stressed and underly-confident brain. I had never considered that maybe if I understood myself better, and catered to my mental health and what brought me happiness, that my voice would work much better. I don’t know if I was even ready for marriage. The stress spilled over into my waitressing job and I called a customer – who was, in fact, an asshole – an asshole…and I was fired. I finally had some time to just sit with myself. Something snapped. Within a month I called off the engagement, moved to LA without knowing anyone, and have been here ever since.
I think it’s risky to trust yourself, and to try the things you are curious about. But this is the only way you can learn what you like and don’t like, and the ways you can bring your talents to the world. I took a risk investing in my mental health with therapy, and through this I discovered that allowing myself to explore my voice for it’s own unique qualities has made me such a better singer. The more you understand yourself, the more you understand your voice. Risk (and karaoke) has lead me to discovering my love of singing rock and metal, along with increasing my vocal freedom for singing classical and opera. All of this has made me a better voice teacher, and I’ve begun teaching again at a music academy in Santa Monica. I took a risk leaving traditional work and trying pole dancing at a bikini bar. I discovered that sexiness is not weakness or shame, despite what patriarchal narratives may lead us to believe; the stigma and shame around dancing doesn’t hold any truth for me. Breaking through barriers of the fear and vulnerability behind “being sexy” and realizing I can use dancing to feel strong, dangerous, and powerful has only strengthened my art and singing, and also has strengthened my body through the workout of the job. The best artists are the ones who are so liberated in themselves that there is almost a sense of danger to them, in the best way – look at Grace Jones, Lizzo, Stevie Nicks, Prince, Bowie. I took a risk in creating a social media page to display my art, which was always just for my own enjoyment, and then converting that into a small business. Art is risk – sharing art of any kind requires vulnerability. Which is why the arts are essential, because art is how humanity seeks to understand and reflect itself.
Where are you from and how did your background and upbringing impact who you are today? I was raised in Colorado Springs, CO, and then partially in a very small town in rural Nebraska when my parents divorced. I went back and forth between the two states, at one point living full-time with my mom in NE for part of elementary and middle school, and then choosing to move to CO to live with my dad in high school. Both places were highly conservative, Nebraska especially. I didn’t know that when I was a kid, but I did know that anyone outside what was considered “normal” was not treated kindly, myself included. And I say this as a white, blonde, hetero female. I can’t imagine what my BIPOC and Queer classmates went through. Middle school is traditionally brutal, but in NE it felt crushing to me. I was the kid listening to Stevie Nicks and running around in flowy black clothes, with crystals in her pockets. I had those 90’s over-plucked eyebrows and didn’t know how to un-frizz my long hair, which lead to lovely nicknames like (highly creative) “frizzy-haired bitch.” I loved choir and art, and I was horrible at any sport I tried, even though I was legitimately interested in team sports. I had a group of fellow weird friends who kept me sane, along with my singing and drawing (I was obsessed with the girl-power anime series Sailor Moon, and so drawing anime-style art with colored pencils, pens and watercolor backgrounds was my style of choice then, along with painting acrylic on canvas).
I decided to move to Colorado to live with my dad my sophomore year of high school, having had enough of NE. Colorado Springs is also conservative, but to me it felt like a different world. I joined every choir, every art class, and was not ridiculed for being artistic at my high school. My classmates loved my eclectic style (at that point I chopped my hair into a crimson red bob and wore things ranging from Leeloo’s outfits in The Fifth Element to the flapper styles from the Chicago musical..and got “dress coded” nearly weekly. The patriarchal and shaming influence in school dress codes was still in full effect). I finally found a sport I liked – cross country running and long distance track. Runners are serious weirdos; it was great. I felt like I belonged, and that sense of freedom and safety I felt in my music and art classes, and on that running team, meant a lot to me. The music teachers, art teachers, and coaches I had there fostered our sense of community and creativity. Now I realize that even that environment may have felt stifling to many of my classmates of color, being a heavily white school with almost entirely white faculty.
My upbringing has taught me that the arts should feel safe and accessible to everyone. In my art and in my music and teaching, I seek to create a space that is a safe and informed place for expression. Art should reflect humanity – not just a white facet of humanity. I strive to continue learning, and incorporating what I learn into my teaching and business practices. I will risk, I will probably fail often, but I will keep learning and moving toward what feels right. Art should always feel liberating.
What is the most important factor behind your success / the success of your brand? Authenticity. Learning to listen to myself and consult myself first, before any of the chatter of the world around can alter my feelings. We are meant to live in community, and so of course I value the input of those I trust, and I also know that I can’t do all of the work on my own. But I still remind myself to consult myself first, in all things. If it feels authentic and true to me, it can inspire others to speak and create their truth. Setting boundaries is also very important to me – creating my own business is about choosing my way of life. I think it’s important to establish a standard of what kind of conduct to accept from others, and then holding them to your standards, with no need for explanation.
What value or principle matters most to you? Why? Authenticity. I believe my purpose is to live in my full Joy. This takes vulnerability and courage. When I allow myself to live authentically by doing what brings me joy, this liberates others to do the same.
Work life balance: how has your balance changed over time? How do you think about the balance? My work-life balance has become more tailored to what brings me happiness, which I’m extremely grateful for. It used to be full-time work at jobs which held valuable moments, but which drained me and pushed me further away from my art. Now I’ve been able to shift that balance into something more suited to me. I am currently building up my student base at a new job teaching voice and piano at a music academy in Santa Monica, and I am making Whiskey Witch Wares art commissions nearly weekly, as well as selling art prints. I am dancing several days a week in between. This mix of working with students, making art, and dancing may seem counter-intuitive to some, but for me it’s important to dance with both the dark (shadow) and light sides of my expression, to be friends with all of it in myself. I have time in the mornings to meditate and try yoga videos, to eat a full meal before beginning my day – which was not the case when I held full-time management positions. I have time at night to sing in rock jams and practice guitar. I have weekends to recharge. This is very different from constantly working weekends, being called in for hours outside of my normal 40, being required to work holidays away from family and friends. Being able to treat my body in healthier ways while pursuing work that is meaningful to me is a privilege I am extremely grateful for, and is something I hadn’t imagined was possible before the pandemic. Owning my own business is challenging and frustrating on the daily, and I am learning so many new things which feel awkward at first and require failures and re-tries. But living an artistic life is worth it to me.
What’s the end goal? Where do you want to be professionally by the end of your career? I want to leave something meaningful behind. It’s always been important for me to work with and inspire women. I envision a sort of Womxn’s center of some sort, with classes incorporating art, music, pole dancing, and sharing of herstory. It’s important for me to work with older women of all backgrounds and ethnicities especially, as their stories are the least recorded and heard in patriarchal and white-centered narratives. The Crone archetype is a very misunderstood one in literature, and I seek to develop some sort of work that uplifts the stories and wisdom or our grandmothers. I will hopefully be guest lecturing this Fall at my Alma Mater, Western Colorado University, on the subject of the Crone and her treatment in the arts.
I want to continue developing Whiskey Witch Wares, as I enjoy doing the pet portraits and memorials alongside selling prints of my gothic and macabre art. Commissioned artwork is meaningful and fulfilling to me.
Lastly, I want to keep teaching and singing. Those music and art teachers who helped me feel as if I belonged in high school had a huge positive impact on me. I want to provide that kind of safe space for my students of all ages to foster their expression and creativity. I want to help others feel liberated to stand in their authenticity and joy.
Why did you pursue an artistic or creative career? I had to. I think most artistic people would tell you this – you can try to get a “regular” job, you can try to be happy doing something that others prescribe for you. But you will always be restless until you do whatever it is that burns inside yourself, that calls you to keep trying. Living an artistic life makes me happiest, even if that life comes with its own set of risks and challenges.
Tell us about a book you’ve read and why you like it / what impact it had on you. Over the summer, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I read “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. I like it because it’s clear and precise, packed with information in a short format, and can be used in an academic setting as well as for personal reading and learning. Reading this book helped me understand my own privilege, and the ways that racism is rooted in capitalism and racist ideas, created by those seeking to stay in power thousands of years ago. It’s fueled me to keep learning how I can become a better ally, and to step outside of the false white narrative that is so pervasive in our country and beyond.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community? Whiskey Witch Wares is my small art business: “Cute, Creepy and Custom Art, Made with Love in Los Angeles.” I create original pieces using acrylic on canvas or wood, fine art prints of my original pieces, and I also accept commissions for pet portraits, family portraits, and anything else that may lie inside my customers’ imaginations. My art leans toward gothic, witchy and macabre styles, taking inspiration from the natural world and the feeling of peace I get from being underneath deep, dark water (I am a scuba-certified thalassophile – I have a fascination with deep water and the creatures inside, especially whales…thalassophilia being the opposite of thalassophobia, which is fear of the ocean). Skeletons, catharsis, the female life cycle (Maiden, Mother, Crone), and an acknowledgement and embrace of the Shadow Side (aka the aspects of yourself you may try to suppress or hide) are central to my work. Rejecting binary notions of humanity and rather, coming to embrace a full spectrum of human emotion and expression, is very important to me. I feel that once we can accept ourselves fully, dancing with both the light and the dark within ourselves, allowing ourselves to feel and explore without shame, then we can feel liberated in our lived experiences. These are the intentions I put into my pieces. I am most proud of one of my most recent works, “Bakekujira” (ghost whale), painted in December of 2020, which features the skeleton of a blue whale on a gigantic 2ft x 4ft canvas, and which I’ve made available in 4 different fine art print sizes. In contrast with my more gothic pieces, the pet portraits I offer can be celebrations of a pet’s personality, life, or a memorial after a passing. I create these on wooden plaques, and I incorporate the colors and styles which my customers feel best represent their loved ones. These are a lot of fun to make and a great way to make a personal connection with the folks who order them.
Whiskey Witch Wares is really about being authentic to yourself. As Dale Dreyfoos, an opera professor of mine, said to me in grad school – “be yourself on purpose.” I hope my pieces inspire others to live in their own way. Stay weird.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I’d have to start with the ocean. Will Rogers beach, and just a mile north of that, the well-known surf spot near Gladstones restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway are my favorite places to clear my mind. Sunrises and sunsets there are epic, and strange creatures tend to wash up (I saw a massive jellyfish one day, and huge purple sea slugs called CA sea hares in the tide pools), along with dolphins passing by in the early mornings. Nearby there is one of my favorite hiking spots – Los Leones trail in Pacific Palisades. If you go up about a mile and half, you reach a bench on a gorgeous overlook. And if you keep going up the dirt fire road from there, about another 2 miles up, you get an even more amazing overlook, where you can see the ocean and the coast for miles. Another favorite 7 mile roundtrip hike of mine begins in Griffith Park off of Franklin Ave and goes all the way up behind the Hollywood sign – this is mind-blowing the first time you go. The letters are massive! For food, you have to try Toi on Sunset – my favorite Thai restaurant. It’s rock & roll themed and open until about 4am. For a cheaper and cash-only Thai experience, I also recommend Torung on Hollywood Blvd – it’s the cutest family-owned hidden gem. One of my other favorites is Bon Vivant Market & Cafe – the cheeseboards, wine, and food are amazing. For drinks you’d have to hit up Boardner’s in Hollywood – a dimly lit throwback to the 30’s and 40’s Hollywood era, where you can sit and have an amazing meal and drink, go out on the back patio into a candelabra-lit room paved with original cobblestones, or enter the enormous 2-level room that on Saturdays becomes a gothic-themed club (Bar Sinister) where folks can safely let their freak flags fly, complete with a play room upstairs where patrons can either watch or participate. Black attire in gothic, fetish or other darkly-themed fashion is required. Burgundy Room on Cahuenga is a darkly-lit dive bar and a favorite starting place for weekends, with great cocktails and atmosphere. Also my favorite female-owned neighborhood bar, R Bar in Koreatown, has the best karaoke night in the city, amazing food, and it’s where I met all of the best people I know in LA.
If you need a solid brunch/lunch spot for the next morning, Antonio’s on Melrose Ave. is one of my favorites. Family-owned for several generations, you can meet Antonio Sr. and enjoy amazing Mexican food and coffee. Sit outside to people watch everyone walking on Melrose – it’s fun. Hit up the Melrose stores for great shopping afterwards – Crossroads is my favorite thrift store; locally-owned Rebel Rebel is another great shop; and for rock & roll jewelry you have to check out the gorgeous collection at The Great Frog (and meet their shop kitty Ninja).
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’d like to dedicate my Shoutout to my mom, Kim Bruns. She has always encouraged me to follow my heart, and has never judged me for doing so, even if my actions make no sense to her at the time. Even if we argue over something, in the end we reconnect because she is my mom and I am her daughter, and we love each other. In her words, I do and try things that “would scare the crap out of most people.” I got that from watching her continue to question the world and try new things as her life goes on. Even when things have nearly crushed her, she faces them, in her own time, and continues to move forward, despite what other people may think. I love you mom, to the moon and back.
Photos of myself taken by Tony Del Campo Photos of my art taken by myself, Kellie Krueger High-res photos of Bakekujira, Doppelgänger and Mema’s Garden prints done by POV Fine Art Printing.