When most people think of art, they don’t think of mouse piggy banks from the late 1960s to early 1970s, but then again, most aren’t as ingenious and creative as Ruth Liebau.
Liebau died aged 83 in February this year after battling cancer for more than three years. She left a beautiful mark not only in the lives of those who knew her, but through her many artistic pursuits, including music – she was a talented soprano even in her 80s.
“Ruth and I met at Florida State University, I was a piano student and she was a vocal student,” said husband Ray Liebau. “We met … in one of the worst jazz bands in the world. I missed the first rehearsals, I walked in and there was this pretty girl on the piano, a singer. And of course, we had had to work closely… So we started dating and the rest is kind of history. We did a lot of music together.
After retiring and moving to Hot Springs, the Liebaus often performed at The Caring Place, a respite care program primarily for people struggling with the effects of aging and dementia.
“It was wonderful, the people were wonderful. We were lucky enough to continue making the songs we had been doing since we were teenagers,” Ray Liebau said.
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Although Ruth Liebau may be best known for her singing, she had a remarkable ability to adopt creative skills quickly, he said.
“Throughout our married years, pretty much anything Ruth picked up and put into her hands, she could either do it almost naturally or very quickly learn to do it. Sewing…her mother had bought her a little mini Singer sewing machine.. Almost as soon as we got married, for Christmas, she made matching shirts for our son, for me and for my dad. She could do it, she said.
“Mice appeared around the time we retired. There were banks that gave — if you opened a new account, they gave you a little plastic doll, a mouse with big ears — a piggy bank. And I think Ruth’s mom…asked her if she could refurbish that mouse. Well, that got Ruth started on the mouse collection,” he said.
“Basically they’re all the same, they were designed by a man…named Roy Des. And they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There’s a Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, there’s Wonder Woman, there’s an angel And she had to figure out how to take that doll and turn her into an angel…we loved going to flea markets, and so she was always looking for accessories and she was stockpiling in her head , ‘Oh, I need ballet shoes for them; Oh, I need to look for wings; Oh, I need special hair,’ he said.
A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in the couple’s master bedroom is populated with an eclectic variety of intricately adorned mouse banks, as well as bunnies, dogs and a single elephant – Donald Trunk. The Elvis mouse bank has a place of honor alone at the other end of the room, guitar and little teddy bear at his feet.
Not only are mouse banks dressed up, but they have proper props and dressings. The Hawaiian dancer and the sea mice have several palm trees and a boat. Native Americans have totem poles, a pony and a canoe. A pirate mouse has a treasure chest and a pile of the Liebaus’ 50th wedding anniversary fake gold coins – they gave each guest a gold coin to commemorate their golden anniversary.
And if Ruth Liebau couldn’t find what she needed for the mice, she would do it herself, her husband said.
“The felt clothes, cutting the pieces, fitting them, getting this – Hiawatha needs a canoe…the fun was, for me…watching them become what they finally were – are. One or two of them have Ruth’s sister married a Scotsman – not really from Scotland but all her heritage was from Scotland And Ruth had dressed one of those mice as a golfer… so that was passed on to his sister,” he said. .
“Once she started, eBay was where you could find mice. We found, at that time, a number (which were) $9, $10 – so the initial investment was relatively weak. She already had in mind what this one was going to be, and this one, and she wanted to do this, and I think the only reason she stopped — there’s still three or four mice that are in their original state as we have them…because she hadn’t figured out what the next would be,” he said.
“We had 61 years of marriage. We had known each other four years before that. Sixty-five years. People were like, ‘Damn, you’ve been playing a long time, how long are you going to last? And Ruth was saying, ‘We’re going to keep doing it until we get it right.’ So that was our motto…lovely lady.”
Ruth Liebau performed opera and was a solo soprano with the Verdi Requiem, with the Jackson Symphony,” Ray Liebau said, noting, “She could handle anything, if she said she could do it, she could do it. “
“His collection of mice, to me, is very real art,” he said.