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Artist tells stories through illustrations
Helen Endres, the creator of Colony Brands' Chris Mouse, sit in her home in Monroe Wednesday. To order a reprint of this photo, visit (Times photo: Marissa Weiher_
MONROE - The work of Helen Endres may well be the most recognizable illustrations in Monroe.

Endres is the artist responsible for creating Chris Mouse, the Swiss Colony's ambassador of holiday cheer. Over her more than three decades in Monroe, Endres has created artwork that has graced holiday tins and catalogs for the company.

Despite this legacy, an artist's life was never Endres' long-term plan.

"I sort of backed into it," Endres said with a laugh.

After a brief stint at Hallmark in Kansas City, Endres returned to work for a small art agency in Chicago as an art assistant. At the time, Schreiner-Bennett had Swiss Colony as a client. Pat Kubly, son of company founder Ray Kubly, asked if the agency could create a new face for the company.

At the time, Endres scrawled out a mouse she was not proud to display.

"It was such an ugly thing, with long legs, a big tail and huge ears," Endres said. "That was the first ever Chris Mouse."

Eventually the image became more focused and adapted into the Chris Mouse adored in homes throughout the country, complete with a Santa Claus hat.

A few years and a new job later, Endres was sitting in one of her favorite restaurants when she had a chance encounter with Kubly, who asked her to accept a freelance job with the company.

Endres soon found friends among the photographers and other artists.

"I realized I was a very lucky gal because I was the only one with a window," said Endres, who is originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. "But it wasn't a very creative atmosphere. They eventually worked out conditions with the company lawyer which would allow me to work in my home. They made it possible for me to be a painter."

Throughout the years, Endres has been just that. Acrylic and watercolor paintings cover walls in her home. Scenes include photos of family members sharing a game of checkers, cats roaring like lions and cattle roaming a pasture. A colorful work of Italian landscape hangs in her dining room.

Now, 35 years later, Endres is being celebrated for her work with an exhibit at the Monroe Arts Center. The opening reception was held on Nov. 11 and will continue into January at the Muranyi Gallery. MAC executive director Richard Daniels organized the event after Endres mentioned a collection of Colony Brands items that were gathering dust in her home. She felt the pieces could be sold from the center, as long as they would be handed off to collectors, not individuals looking to enhance their bank accounts.

"I told him, 'I have a pile of tins in the basement, you're welcome to sell them,'" Endres said. Though the sales did not happen, the gallery show did.

On the eve of the opening reception, Endres spoke to the crowd, eliciting laughter and congratulatory applause while enjoying "a wonderful night with old friends."

A special layout with Chris Mouse is included within the display. Endres said she wanted the show, titled "Chris Mouse: Ready for your Closeup" to focus on the spokesman character. The layout was a creation from two decades ago which Kubly was only recently shown.

He looked it over after he met with Endres and had a simple reaction upon close examination. Endres recalled his proclamation of "I love it" before it was decided that the new layout will be displayed on The Swiss Colony brands items next year.