The back of the minivan looks like the aftermath of a tornado on a world of fabric, with curly-lashed eyes and red lips strewn amongst a crush of material. I hold my arms out and Heidi Kambitsch starts loading them up with damp anamorphic puppets, fuzzy arms and legs poking this way and that. It’s the Monday after the monsoon of Gay Pride weekend, and discovering these costumes inert and lifeless is like finding Superman’s outfit in the dirty laundry.
“I wasn’t into all of the [superheroes] when I was a kid, but I did love the double identities, the double worlds, like Clark Kent,” she says as she untangles tails. “We all have these double worlds in our lives—there is work life, but maybe someone’s a superhero mom behind the scenes.”
Bringing the costumes to life requires her enthusiasm and passion. The human-sized puppets she pulls from the van comprise the world of Open Heart Creatures, Heidi’s art workshop and custom design studio. Her project fosters kindness and acceptance in people of all ages via appearances and live presentations of storytelling, spoken word, dance, and improvisation at festivals, parades, schools, and more. In some cases, it’s a play meant to challenge societal beliefs about gender and put an end to bullying; in others, it’s an impromptu street performance to inspire wonderment in the community.
Heidi’s youthful inspirations were equal parts whimsical and real. “Care Bears were my heroes; they operated from a place of love,” she says. “And my dad, he taught me about the matters of the heart. He was a tremendously generous and authentic person. I grew up in the ghetto of Dayton, but my dad always had something to give when someone knocked on the door, and I was always there, watching.”
She recognized that taking one’s strength and turning it into a way to cultivate a generous soul was a meaningful route to take in life. And her strength was art.
Heidi (whose given first name is Pilgrim, which she has embraced of late) gained entry into her calling by creating expressive finger puppets while working as a children’s therapist. Her work today under the Open Heart Creatures banner adds to that foundation with hand puppets and full-body versions that are evocative of the fantastic mystical beasts in Where the Wild Things Are.
She encourages others to join her league of heartfelt empowerment at events all around the city. You may have seen her troupe—water-logged yet smiling—in the Pride parade, or you may have witnessed their generous, inclusive performances at ComFest. Heidi’s brigade of puppets will also perform in this year’s Doo Dah Parade on July 4. By way of these events, her cup runneth over with the spirit of her collaborators. “The community volunteers who sweat in the puppets in the heat or rain are the true superheroes. When the strength comes from the heart, it goes far beyond what our physical body thought it could do.”
Heidi has experienced the puppets’ power to transform anyone who dons their appearance. “I have such a giant, strong belief in these puppets; they change lives. I know, it happened to me. They helped me to shed fear. I put these on and fear diminished in my life, and it had a ripple affect. I can do anything; I am wide open to experiences. The puppets have the ability to erase our fears.”
“They allow you to get rid of all the labels, be a different creature, and maybe, for the first time, dance, sing, do shit.”
People don’t have to be wearing a costume to be inspired by the puppets; sometimes just seeing one can change a person’s whole day. Heidi recalls riding her bike to deliver food downtown one winter day, and of course, she was cycling while wearing a giant Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer head. The next day, she was walking around the Short North wearing the costume yet again: “And this man comes up to me and said, ‘Wait a minute, I saw you yesterday!’ He was on the 17th floor of some fancy building facilitating a meeting, saw me out of the window, stopped the meeting and said ‘Everyone come look!’ It changed the entire mood of the meeting.”
And while sprinkling unexpected happiness into a stranger’s day is a source of encouragement for Heidi, the stories from close to home are the ones that make her heart sing. She talks about one of her sons who was having a difficult time transitioning from a progressive preschool to a daylong kindergarten. He had a stutter and some kids started to bully him, demanding that he say the word “yellow” over and over again. “In the morning, he’d put his head down on the table and not want to go to school. It was heartbreaking,” she says. “I had made both boys capes—his was a cape with his initials on the back, and he loves that cape, feels powerful and confident in it, parades around in it.”
“I suggested that he wear it to school, but when we got there, he tore it off and threw it into the car, saying, ‘I can’t bring it to school, we’re not allowed to bring toys.’ So I told his teacher to ask about his cape, and he wore it the next day,” she continued. “He wasn’t sure about it, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, but he wore it and all the kids were like, ‘We want a cape!’ Suddenly he was the cool kid! I went in the next week and everyone made a cape. The kids never messed with him again. Years later, I still see some of those kids and they go, ‘Miss Heidi, I still have my cape!’”
The cape, or the creature, or the mask, or the costume may help people feel exceptional, but the essence of the role comes from within.
“I am a superhero because you are a superhero,” Heidi says. “We all have the ability to bring out each other’s superhero powers. When we see and lift up any human strength, we can become superhuman.”