Artist Bruce Stowe shares a "masked" moment with Kathryn Croy, one of the historical figures Stowe painted last year which now sports a face covering. (Putnam Sentinel/Steven Coburn-Griffis)
Artist Bruce Stowe shares a "masked" moment with Kathryn Croy, one of the historical figures Stowe painted last year which now sports a face covering. (Putnam Sentinel/Steven Coburn-Griffis)

OTTAWA — While the argument over the necessity of face coverings rages on, an Ottawa man took subtle action to make his opinion on the issue known. Late last week, local artist, author, and historian Bruce Stowe taped foam face coverings on figures in a mural he painted last year.

Covering the east wall of the Putnam County Community Thrift Store, the mural depicts historical downtown Ottawa hotspots spanning nearly 100 years of its development. Peering through its windows, and pacing its sidewalks are men and women of both local and national renown: Comedian Bob Hope, Ding Dong School’s Frances Horwich, Samuel Rappaport, Theodore Chifos, Kathryn Croy, and Betty Wannemacher. All once walked the streets here. All are woven into the fabric of this county’s history. And all, at least for the moment, are sporting face coverings.

Stowe completed the additions shortly before 6 p.m. last Thursday, immediately prior to Two Fat Dad’s performance on the Rex Center stage. A member of Ottawa’s Cultural Committee, Stowe introduced the duo, then drew the crowd’s attention to the mural easily visible across the railroad tracks from the park.

“You know what happened at 6 p.m. today,” Stowe told those present, referencing Ohio’s mandatory face covering order, which went into effect last Thursday. “I made all my characters put on their masks. I don’t want to get deep into it. I just want you all to do your best. I want you all to be safe.”

The debate over face coverings has detractors chafing. Concerns regarding individual freedom, the efficacy of the effort, and outright disbelief in the range and scope of the coronavirus pandemic are often cited in conversations and on social media.

On the other hand, the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and the Ohio Department of Health — among others — all assert face coverings reduce transmission of the virus. Locally, most of the county’s physicians and nurse practitioners recently issued an open letter to the public pleading for their use. And last week, President Donald Trump began urging all Americans to avoid crowds, practice physical distancing, and wear masks.

It’s from this quarter, from science, from the perspective of public health, that Stowe drew his inspiration, a position he comes by honestly.

“My mom was a county health nurse,” Stowe said. “I have a picture of her pouring the last of (Putnam County’s) small pox vaccine down the drain once they’d beaten that. So I grew up with medicine and science.”

Gesturing at the mural, the artist was quick to draw a connection between the characters he painted and the plight the world now finds itself in. Most, if not all, of the depicted people, he said, were born near the turn of the last century. With that as a given, they would have lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

“Almost every one was alive then,” Stowe said. “All of these people did go through a pandemic, it just wasn’t this one.”

Stowe tugged at his mask — black cloth slashed with white lines to create the affect of a cat — and said, “We think we don’t have to wear a mask, but just look at what’s happening in the world. I don’t know where you’ve been. You don’t know where I’ve been.” He paused, then added, “It’s just better to be safe.”