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It’s not the kind of profession that fits neatly into a survey box. Ask Lex Rudd what she does for a living and she’ll laconically reply in her gentle British accent, “Creature Maker.”

But then the 35-year-old Rudd, with her own distinctive shock of red curly hair that gives her the look of a Celtic princess disguised in blue jeans, has been making puppets and animated animals, monsters and mythical characters by inspiration or special commission ever since she was a 16-year-old, whipping out werewolf masks in a friend’s garage.

“I wanted to do Halloween but you couldn’t get masks and costumes in England,” she remembers. “Everybody knows what Halloween is there. But nobody celebrates it. You don’t do trick-or-treating.”

So she and her pal pooled their pocket money, checked out some library books on sculpting and molding, bought clay, plaster and latex, and went to work.

“I think we just went out to a party with them. But I really liked it and just kept doing it,” she says from her creature-making studio, two tiny sheds behind a cottage, all tucked deep into a forested canyon in Rio Nido that some of her friends have playfully dubbed “The Ewok Village.”

After 20 years perfecting her art, Rudd has cracked through the golden door for puppeteers. After a turn on The Syfy channel’s “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge” this spring, she was tapped by Henson Studios to return and work her magic on a new film. And she didn’t even win the show’s $100,000 first prize, which included a full-time job with Henson, although she valiantly hung on until Episode 6 out of 8.

As she was preparing to fly down to Hollywood earlier this month, she had no clue what her assignment would be. But after weeks creating creatures on demand and on deadline for the competitive reality show under impossible conditions, she figures the real work may seem easy by comparison.

“Usually you have more time and more people on your team,” said Rudd, who did minor work on a few Hollywood projects, like “The Brothers Grimm,” a 2005 Terry Gilliam film with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger.

The call was an unexpected affirmation. Rudd was one of 10 artists who specialize in the niche world of creature-creating and squared off in an exhausting eight-week contest overseen by an exacting lead judge, Brian Henson himself. It kept them working around the clock and sequestered like a jury in an off-site house.

Typical episodic challenges? Take a monster trophy head mounted on a wizard’s wall and make it come to life. Make a larger-than-life creature with realistic movements and perform it on a black-light sound stage. Design and build a creature that not only lives in a swamp but is concealed by it.

“You have to be at the top of your game. As the weeks went on everyone was sleep deprived. Everybody managed it,” she said. “But you can see how, as the show progresses, everyone is looking more haggard.”

Rudd shed 10 pounds. The show would bring them food but often the contenders had no time to eat. It was eat or lose valuable time on a challenge. And by the time they were able to eat late at night, the food often had been tossed.

Rudd was ultimately done in over the “Swamp Thing” challenge. As luck would have it, she was teamed with the youngest contender, a 21-year-old sculptor, Jake Corrick. Judges were really looking for “movement” skills. But Corrick, as Rudd related, devoted his time to sculpting, leaving her to the complicated mechanical design of leg systems and joints. When she did task him with cutting out legs, he did it wrong so they didn’t work right. Rudd took the fall.

Over the course she collaborated on some cool creatures like the beaked Skekis from the world of “The Dark Crystal,” and Hungry Horace, the junkyard rat.

Peter Brooke, who heads the Creature Shop, nonetheless, hinted at the end that “the best people didn’t necessarily make it into the top 3,” and that several runners-up might be getting a call, although he didn’t mention names.

High-level creature-making is not an easy art to master. Rudd studied interactive art at the University of Wales and later enrolled in a special effects program at South Bank University in London led by a prosthetic maker who was frequently absent. Rudd got little out of it but debt.

What she knows she learned by trial and error. And since “The Challenge,” she’s been honing her mechanical skills to better animate her creatures, taking a course from an experienced puppeteer who works with the Muppets in New York.

So far, Rudd has managed to make a living at her unusual profession by taking contract work under the company name Primal Visions, sculpting and sewing eerily realistic animal puppets, masks and costumes in her shop in the woods. For four years she made fanciful puppets for The Bay Area-based Folkmanis Puppets and now splits her time between Rio Nido and New York, where she collaborates with her boyfriend, a retired New York firefighter and professional puppeteer who shares her passion for creating fanciful characters and then bringing them to life.

The thing that drives me more than anything is my love of animals and nature,” she says, while tenderly holding a realistic fox puppet named Renadine that is her frequent companion, “and I think I’m just always trying to recreate that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.