Photo by Brian Hockensmith

Puppet with a Purpose

On Tulane, a block up from High Street, there hunkers a brick-red building that watches over the people coming in and out of Cup O’ Joe, hands clasping caffeine. A hand-painted sign sits above a window filled with puppets – openheartcreatures.

Cupping your eyes at the window, a large studio with light wood floors sits empty as if waiting for something, or someone, to fill up its white-walled space with color.
“Hi, I’m Heidi,” welcomes openheartcreatures founder Heidi Kambitsch with a warm smile under a ginger fringe of hair. We greet with a hug and go to her creative space – it would be a great injustice to call it an office – and we talk about her life as the “puppet lady.”

“I wake up everyday and do what I love,” she says with that certain smile those who have found the secret to life flash now and again. Surrounded by furry fabric, stacks of books, a giant cassette tape, a sewing machine, and walls of paintings, pinned up notes and pictures, Kambitsch recalls the first “body puppet” she ever made.

“When we grow up, we forget to ask why and we forget to play, we forget curiosity. Getting people to snap out of the zombie state they can get into is my motivation and inspiration.”

“It was an upside-down laundry basket that had fabric draped over it, wiggley eyes, and a pretend telephone on the side. The first time I wore it in public, I was amazed by what it did! All my defenses dropped, I was able to express myself fearlessly and free, in ways I never would have normally. The telephone was this bridge and I was this creature – it busted down the walls and people would pick up the phone and tell me all sorts of things. Complete strangers.”

After 10 years of working with children and children’s support groups, often using finger puppets to get the young ones to open up and share their stories, through the Department of Health, Kambitsch decided to hang her own puppet shingle. In 2005, she started openheartcreatures, a body puppet performance troupe and factory.

“I make all the puppets from recycled stuff,” she said. Trained as a painter at CCAD, Kambitsch had no training in sculpture or fashion. “I literally taught myself to sew.” In addition to openheartcreatures, the puppeteer also ran openheartART, holding art workshops for children. “My philosophy is that there is no right way or wrong to do art – it was a safe space where people could express themselves.” While she has laid off the workshops for now, the puppetry and getting people to express themselves is a vein that has yet to be fully tapped.

openheartcreatures packs up its puppets and performs all over the city, from art openings to ComFest, from presenting anti-bullying performances at schools to leading mask-making workshops at the Columbus Museum of Art. All performances aren’t planned, however.

Sometimes Kambitsch pops on a puppet head and rides her bike around. Sometimes she goes grocery shopping dressed as a yellow bird. “I was at Kroger and this little boy saw me across the room – he was in one of the little red shopping cars and was waving at me. I flew over to him and found out it was his birthday…going down another aisle, this elderly woman was just watching me and she said, really quietly, ‘What’s going on? What are you?’ I like making people ask themselves those questions and I never give a consistent answer.”

“When we grow up, we forget to ask why and we forget to play, we forget curiosity. Getting people to snap out of the zombie state they can get into is my motivation and inspiration for the spontaneous performance in the streets.”

If you don’t catch Kambitsch whizzing by on her bike wearing a giant nose on her head, you can immerse yourself in her plushy creations in the Wonder Room at the Columbus Museum of Art. Opened in January, this creative spot for all ages is a space for imagination to run amok. “It’s amazing to be there, I feel so honored that people have my puppet costumes to play with,” she said. “The opening was this giant dress up party, it was so beautiful.”

The biggest challenge of the CMA puppets, she explained, was making feet, hands, capes, and masks that would universally fit both adults and kids. “It was another venue to explore my own imagination.”

The Dayton/Yellow Springs native grew up in a creative, traveling family and literally takes a part of that world with her to each performance. “This was my first bed,” she says, reaching for a lovingly duck-taped black guitar case lined with red velvet. “It’s my toolbox now – actually, all of this is my toolbox.” She gestures around the room to the stack of teeth, the bolts of fabric, the paintings. “I keep my accessories in the case.”

A dark red case to match the red shingles of openheartcreatures. Next time you walk by, that espresso so desperately clutched, take a moment to look up and check out the magical puppets looking out the window. Drop the zombie glaze and experience a moment of wonder. •