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Posters by Sonoma Coast-raised artist promote pandemic safety ‒ in 33 languages

Sonoma Coast native Maggie Rudy was sheltered-in-place at her family’s compound near Stillwater Cove when she realized what she could do to contribute to the nation’s pandemic response.

The Portland-based artist, children’s author and illustrator already had been feeding growing hunger for storybook scenes of her handmade mouse figures on social media for several months when she conceived of something that went beyond the pleasant distraction of the elaborate vignettes.

That’s when she created a free, downloadable poster using her sweetly countenanced mice and a few of their pals to promote the use of facial coverings to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Artist Maggie Rudy at Stillwater Cove Ranch north of Jenner, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Artist Maggie Rudy at Stillwater Cove Ranch north of Jenner, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

It features mouse friends, a mother mole and her baby, a bird and a frog, all wearing masks made from flowers and leaves. They’re framed by an admonition to “Wear a Mask! Protect Your Fellow Animals.”

“Like many people during the pandemic, I've felt a bit scattered and helpless, and I needed to contribute something, particularly to children and those who work with them,” Rudy, 61, said this week during a stay in Sonoma County. “I've mostly resisted using my site to make political points because I want it to be a place of solace. But as it became clear the masks were going to be essential, and as there began to be resistance to wearing them, I thought I might be able to use my characters to express the message in a positive way, that wearing a mask helps your friends.”

Rudy’s poster debuted in early July and is available now in at least 33 languages — from Hmong to Swahili, Swedish to Urdu. She recently translated the poster into Nimiipuutimt, the tongue of Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe, working with elders through the tribal radio station. It’s on display in the reservation library.

A piece of artwork made by Maggie Rudy at her home in Stillwater Cove Ranch in Jenner, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
A piece of artwork made by Maggie Rudy at her home in Stillwater Cove Ranch in Jenner, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Monday, she planned to convert it into ancient Greek, “which is not super useful, but is kind of cool.”

Mostly the translations have been driven by specific requests from teachers, librarians and day care providers from around the United States and elsewhere. Apparently, lots of school-age children in the Bronx speak Albanian, for instance.

The poster has been downloaded around the world, mostly in the United States, but often in Russia and Japan, as well in places like Saudi Arabia. She only recently had a counter coded into her website, so she only knows it’s been downloaded at least 500 times.

But Rudy is eager to get it out to as many kid-friendly places as she can, especially in underserved communities that are often those that have been hardest hit by the deadly virus.

“There’s not a lot for kids about mask wearing,” she said.

Rudy was born at Stillwater Cove Ranch, a one-time boys’ school founded by her grandparents and operated for three decades. Her father and sister’s family live on the property. She lived for several years in Sebastopol, too, before her father, Jerry Rudy, a longtime marine biology professor for the University of Oregon, moved the family north.

Maggie Rudy studied art at Reed College in Portland before having a family of her own, raising two boys and tending to all the costumes, props, puppets and making of things for their school activities while working as a gallery artist at the same time.

When her kids were young, she fabricated the first of what would become her signature mouse figures, modeling them in part from some surviving toys she and her sisters had acquired as children while living in England, where their father was doing post-doctoral work.

After about 20 years of perfecting her mice and crafting their world from tiny, found objects and inventive use of materials, she published her first book in 2011, “The House that Mouse Built.” She’s now published four storybooks, each illustrated with photographs of her creations, costumed and placed in tiny stage sets with delicate, intricately devised props. Her niece, a union grip in New York City, does the lighting.

Rudy’s latest book, an adaptation of Cinderella called “Sootypaws,” was released last spring, just as coronavirus arrived in the United States earlier this year — “not a good time for a book,” she said.

Rudy was with family in Sonoma County around that time, when governors in both California and Oregon imposed stay-home orders. She would remain there for the next three months, sheltering in place.

She already was accustomed to sharing scenes of her animal characters regularly with more than 50,000 social media followers.

But “it became clear to me during the shutdown that people were really craving little moments of feel-good vacation, and people were really responding to this, so I started putting up one a day,” she said. “Away from my studio, I had to sort of delve into the old stuff. So I was, in some ways, more steeped in my mouse world than I am at home.”

Though none of the scenes were “particular to this moment,” she got the idea of mice and masks and promoting good habits, and decided how she would set it up as soon as she got back to her studio and mouse-making supplies at the end of June. She wanted to be inclusive, so she had some friends join the mice, as well.

Once she put the poster out, requests started coming in for translations, and she’s had to work out different ways to connect with translators, finding the right conversational language and equivalencies.

She also has made a downloadable “Wash Your Paws” poster, so far available only in English. Both are available at maggierudy.com.

“I was talking to somebody the other day, saying, ’You know, it’s so frustrating not to be able to — I mean, I can’t put in an I.V. I don’t have any of those front line skills — but I can do cute animals, you know,” she said. “And so it’s nice to feel like I’m contributing something.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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