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Interview: Welcome to Maggie Rudy’s Mouseland

The Portland-area visual artist and children’s book author talks about her journey into the world of mouse-making and the importance of nature in her work.

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Maggie Rudy works in her home studio, a hodgepodge of felt, paint, markers, scissors, needle and thread, beads, flowers, pliers, and other supplies waiting to be assembled into the mice, frogs, tadpoles, moles, roly-polies, lizards, and butterflies of Mouseland. Photo courtesy: Maggie Rudy
Maggie Rudy works in her home studio, a hodgepodge of felt, paint, markers, scissors, needle and thread, beads, flowers, pliers, and other supplies waiting to be assembled into the mice, frogs, tadpoles, moles, roly-polies, lizards, and butterflies of Mouseland. Photo courtesy: Maggie Rudy

I first laid eyes on Maggie Rudy’s Instagram page, maggiemice, nearly three years ago and immediately fell in love with the childlike wonder that emanates from her work. Miniature mice stand before whimsical backgrounds, wearing a variety of clothing, from skirts and cardigans to lumberjack outfits to their Sunday best, in scenes depicting dancing, napping, household chores, or adventures.

Through the scenes themselves and the quaint, country aesthetic of the felt and painted-fabric materials used, I was transported back to my most sentimental childhood memories and decided I simply must know more. Visiting Rudy’s artist website, a festive banquet scene featuring mice, moles, frogs, and foxes around a table greeted me, along with the words, “Welcome to Mouseland!”

Rudy is a visual artist and children’s book author based in Portland. She spent her formative years in rural England before studying art at Reed College. Born to a visual artist mother and naturalist father, Rudy was immersed in nature-inspired creativity and has maintained that imaginative spark. When she became a mother, she took apart one of her favorite childhood toys — a small felt mouse — and re-created the pattern. The catalyst for Mouseland was born.

Starting in 2011, Rudy has written and created children’s books: The House That Mouse Built (2011), I Wish I Had a Pet (2014), City Mouse, Country Mouse (2017), and Sootypaws (2020). She also had a page in an Eric Carle book about favorite bugs.

Years after discovering her work, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Rudy in her home studio of more than 12 years, nestled in the lush forests of outer Portland. Walking up the stairs to her attic studio was akin to a dream, a child’s fantasy of seeing Santa’s workshop. I found no elves, but a marvelous collection of figurine mice, frogs, tadpoles, moles, roly-polies, lizards, and butterflies — some dressed, some not, some partially finished, some in disrepair — accompanied by felt, paint, markers, scissors, needle and thread, beads, flowers, pliers, and other supplies waiting to be assembled into Mouseland’s magic.

It occurred to me as we began to chat, and Rudy’s dog paid me an inquisitive visit, that Mouseland, as Rudy refers to her felt-mouse creations, is more emotionally extensive and conceptual than may first meet the eye. Rudy’s pieces are more than beautiful toy scenes, but handmade art that manages to recall a state of youthful joy, sensitivity, and delicacy that many can relate to. Rudy invites adults to discover a lightness of being through this intricate and technically honed fine art form that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“When many people find out that I’m a children’s book illustrator they will say, ‘Oh, you must love kids,’ and I do love kids, but what we are doing, really, is reanimating our own childhoods,” Rudy said. “A lot of times when I want to express my feelings, I’ll have some mice and just move them around. Put them into a big group hug. We all need a big group hug now and again.”

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While seeing Rudy’s work transports me to spring afternoons spent picnicking with my mother, watching the wildlife flit by and counting ladybugs as they land on our arms, it also reminds me to consider the way in which both children and adults have been taught to interact with specific media based on their ages. The all-too-common message that illustrations, soft-material sculpture, and figurines should be reserved for the entertainment and enrichment of children does adults a great disservice — especially when timeless work like Rudy’s exists to be marveled at and enjoyed by all. I talked with Rudy about her work; our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mama mice take a wintery stroll in "Baby Backpacks" by Maggie Rudy. Photo courtesy: Maggie Rudy
Mama mice take a wintery stroll in “Baby Backpacks” by Maggie Rudy. Photo courtesy: Maggie Rudy

How did you get into mouse-making?

Rudy: We lived in Lancaster, England, when I was little, and there was a shop where all they sold were mice and little furniture and such. My sister and I bought a few and we loved them. Around 25 years later, when I had my own kids, I took the last old one apart and made a pattern from it, thinking that it could be fun. That’s how I started making them. They looked very different and were stitched and wonky, and as I got more and more into making them, they got more and more realistic. I kept remaking the pattern, and I started making a little house for the mice; I started making the environments. I began taking photos and illustrating kids’ books. Overall, it’s been close to 30 years that I’ve been doing this.

What are the mice made of?

They’re not felted, but they are made of sheet felt I cut out of a pattern that I have developed over the years. They have pipe-cleaner spines, which become the arms and legs and tail, and they are stuffed with cotton and have glass-bead eyes. Pretty simple materials. I comb the felt so that it’s furry.

How much of your materials are made of recycled items?

The mice themselves are not recycled materials, but all of the environmental aspects and the clothes are recycled. I don’t use a lot of natural materials like leaves because they’re so delicate that they can make the rest of my work look clunky, but sometimes I do grab a twig or another item from the forest or the ground. Most of the recycled items I get from a local shop called SCRAP.

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Your scenes give me warm memories of childhood. Where do you get your inspiration for the scenes you set up?  

I smile when you say you are reminded of your childhood, because I’m feeling my childhood when I make them. There’s one where the mice are sitting on the beach, and that’s how I spent a lot of my youth, sitting on a rainy, sandy beach with smoke blowing in my face from the beach fire. When creating, I tap into things I remember from my childhood, and I recognize things going on that trigger a memory — could be news or a picture I see. Sometimes I am inspired simply by wanting to make fancy clothes for a mole! But even that desire would be based on a year I spent in art school in Italy and spending a lot of time seeing classical paintings and portraits. It all taps into my life.

An autumnal banquet draws Maggie Rudy's cast of many critters. Photo courtesy: Maggie Rudy
An autumnal banquet draws Rudy’s cast of many critters. Photo courtesy: Maggie Rudy

What is your daily routine in Mouseland?

When I wake up, I come to my studio and turn on the space heater before I go downstairs and have my coffee. Then I come back around 9 a.m. and work until 5 p.m., taking breaks to walk the dog and have lunch. I cannot wait to get up here every day. I used to do all sorts of art, painting, and studio work, but I have never had anything engage me this long and this intensely, because there are so many aspects to it that engage something so primal. Every day is different. Since the pandemic, I decided to engage more online and have developed a really nice community of artists and other people who recognize something kindred in my work, and that is such a good feeling.

Tell me about your background in writing and in visual arts.

It was easy to get into the arts, because my grandmother was an artist and my mother was an artist, so I always had the desire to make stuff and was always very visual. There were always art supplies around and I got to witness my relatives sitting down and painting, so I was very fortunate that way. My mother made a lot of things: She made our clothes and my dad spun wool to make sweaters. Later, I went to Reed College and was an art major. I had a stint doing biological illustration and did some illustration for The Oregonian and began to show at the Mark Woolley Gallery downtown, mostly pastels and big landscapes. At some point, I began making the mice and it became more of what I was doing. When I started with the children’s books, I put the painting aside, except for when I make “book dummies,” so that’s when I do my painting. I also paint little miniatures sometimes.

It sounds like you have spent a lot of time in nature.

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Yes, definitely. Spending time on the beach as a child, following my dad around outside, living in a vast natural area – always in nature. Nature plays a big part in what I do. That’s one of the things I always hope for with my books, that they inspire kids to be excited about the natural world and to notice things. Children are naturally curious, but I want to help encourage and cultivate that.

Where do you get your ideas for your stories?

One of my books, I Wish I Had a Pet, developed as a bunch of visuals exploring what it would be like for a mouse to have a pet. The others were commissioned to create retold fairy tales.

What were your favorite books or authors as a child?

I was in England for two years at around 6 and 7 years old and it is where I got a lot of my foundation. I loved Ferdinand and Little Fur Family. We read a lot of books and when I was a kid in England, my first chapter book was Sam Pig. The place where we lived was very rural and had a lot of animals and landscapes that were formative to see — getting to visit Beatrix Potter’s house and all that. Potter was the best. She was just so far ahead and her paintings were wonderful. She was a great biologist and environmentalist and quite ahead of her time.

A flannel-and-denim-clad mouse roasts marshmallows in Rudy's "Dusk in the Porcini Forest." Photo courtesy: Maggie Rudy
A flannel-and-denim-clad mouse roasts a piece of mushroom in Rudy’s “Dusk in the Porcini Forest.” Photo courtesy: Maggie Rudy

Do you have a favorite book or author now that you keep coming back to?

I love Muriel Spark and her book A Far Cry From Kensington and have read that one many times. In general, I love spending my time in bookstores, especially Annie Bloom’s Books and Green Bean Books, where I have a window display.

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What is your favorite thing about mouse-making?

I love the variety of different problem-solving skills, as well as working with my hands and using my eyes. It’s so all-engrossing, and the time just speeds by. I’ll be lying in bed or sitting somewhere and the solutions come to me: “Oh, I know just what to use to make those ears!” Answering the questions for myself of “how do you make a frog” or “how do you make a worm” — it’s just so exciting to me. My dad was a marine biologist and naturalist and my mother was a biological illustrator, so I was surrounded by the natural world and I have this habit of looking at things intently, appreciating beauty, then trying to re-create it.

Do you have a favorite mouse character you’ve created?

I have this character called Miss Mole that everyone seems to like and I enjoy, too. I’ve really enjoyed the moles lately. I have so many mice that I’ve made and people ask if they have names. They don’t have names in my mind, but I know them each visually and I’ll say to myself “You know, I wanted to do this scenario but I just used that mouse a few times ago.” Their unique faces happen because they’re all made by hand, so they’re never symmetrical. It’s nice that way, because they then have personalities very different from each other.

How many mice, frogs, moles, and characters have you made?

I have made hundreds of characters, but I have about 40 in rotation that I usually use. Every time there’s a new book, I need to make about a dozen of the main character and all of the surrounding cast. 

What made you decide not to sell your pieces as toys and to focus instead on the books?

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I have considered it, and I have sold a set to a museum, but they’re so intensely personal and I want them to really be cared for. They are toys to some people, but for me, they’re characters,  while the photos and the books are the art.

Maggie Rudy says her "Wear a Mask" poster, which has been translated into 76 languages, gave her a way to feel helpful during the pandemic.
Rudy says her “Wear a Mask” poster, which has been translated into 76 languages, gave her a way to feel helpful during the pandemic.

Your “Wear A Mask” poster, which was free to download and translated into many languages during the pandemic, became very popular. Can you talk more about that?

That was a really wonderful way for me to engage during the pandemic. I got stranded at my parents’ farm and was away from my studio, and it was coincidentally the same month Sootypaws dropped. I wasn’t able to keep working and I kept thinking about a mask scene. Soon after I got home, I put out the mask poster. I got many responses from teachers saying they wanted it for their classrooms, so I made it into a poster and put it online for free. Then I had requests to make it in Spanish. Since I couldn’t go to bookstores and do my usual daily activities, I focused a lot of my time working on that. I began writing to library associations all over the world saying that it was going to be a free poster and seeing if they could translate it into various languages and send it back to me. I have 76 languages now and it’s been downloaded thousands of times all over the world. It’s really been a wonderful way to feel like I could do something helpful during that time. I have people sending me pictures when they see them around.

What advice do you have for artists interested in starting an art, craft, or their own studio?

If you have even a corner in your house designated as your studio and your space, that can be an important time. For me, it was an important moment when I got to say I have a studio and call myself an artist. Taking yourself and your work seriously, along with protecting your artistic space and who you are in that space, is really important. Also, don’t compare yourself to others. Focus on the work and not what else is out there.

Do you have any upcoming projects or posters?

I’m in talks to work on a stop-motion animation show using Mouseland. Prints, posters, cards, and stickers are also coming soon. Right now, my website features free downloads of my “Love Ukraine” poster, “Wear a Mask” poster, and “Be Safe, Leave Space” poster.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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9 Responses

  1. Your fabulous critters are the joy of my days! I look forward to each one and often laugh out loud. I love them and love sharing them with my children and friends.

  2. Every morning we look at the latest Mouseland diorama and it sets us up for our day. Pure joy and such a childlike sweetness makes us feel happy. I too had little felt mice as a child. My favourite one was a baby in a walnut shell crib ?
    There will be a lot of people reading this article today! Thank you. ?

  3. Maggie, we were at Reed together. I marvel at your skill as an artist. It’s hard to find words to describe the good feelings I get when I see one of your critters, or a group of them. It simply lifts my spirits and unfailingly puts a happy smile on my face. Thank you.

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