After professional puppeteer Heather Kahlert began to start a family, she decided to leave her career in film and television in New York City and move to Norwalk where she would channel her love of puppetry in a different direction.
She began working with schools and organizations like STAR, educating kids and adults about the art of puppet making.
Six years ago, Kahlert and her daughter were at the SoNo Arts Celebration and witnessed the puppet parade. Her daughter asked her if they made a dragon puppet and a knight puppet, could they march in the parade the next year?
So Kahlert e-mailed the board of directors, and it just so happened they were looking for someone to take on the board position of overseeing the puppet parade.
Kahlert stepped up to the plate.
"They wanted someone to help change the direction of the puppet parade and go more toward community involvement. So that's what I have been doing the last couple of years, organizing workshops within the local community, working with local groups, schools, STAR, just trying to bring more people in to have direct contact with it."
This year's puppet parade, which kicks off Sunday, Aug. 8 at 1 p.m., will feature 50 new puppets, including 20 large ones that were created during the workshops.
"Making puppets is something that is not out of reach. It's not so sophisticated that it excludes certain groups. You can work with children, with adults. It is something that breaches many different ages and many different levels," Kahlert explained
She said her role has been incredibly rewarding.
"I didn't work with a lot of children before I had children. And it's wonderful to work with them, to teach them that whatever comes into their imagination is something they can make with their hands."
Kahlert pointed out that this year's parade will have a fantasy theme.
"I had a wonderful bunch of teenagers this year and wanted to let them work on whatever they wanted to. So we have a lot of fantasy creatures -- dragons and things out of mythology and things out of people's heads," Kahlert said.
"Watching the puppets fly in the parade for me -- I always end up crying. It's wonderful to see what we've done with the groups that we worked with, to hear the music and to see them walking down the street. It's a realization of something that you've been working on a whole year and that's great," she said.
"There is no way you can't look at that parade and feel choked up," added Sue Brown Gordon, director of exhibiting art for the SoNo Arts Celebration, which will include a kick-off event on Aug. 6 featuring singer Mystic Bowie.
"It is just one of the happiest moments of the entire weekend. I want everyone to come on Saturday (Aug. 7) as well, but I don't know how you can miss the parade. Even the exhibitors look forward to it every year."
Those exhibitors come from 27 states this year as well as Canada, according to Gordon. There will be approximately 150 exhibitors, with many returning from previous years representing a wide range of art forms, including jewelry, painting, photograph, sculpture and clothing. Norwalk artists participating include Brown Gordon and her husband David E. Gordon, John Harris, who won first place in fine art last year, Katherine Pilipauskas and Sandra Oles.
Other local artists include Westport photographers Tom Kretsch and Ron Lake.
"The prerequisite is people have to hand-make everything that they are selling," Brown Gordon said.
She added that all the exhibitors will have avary wide price range and they were specifically invited to bring pieces that even a young child could afford so that there is something for everyone.
Brown Gordon, a graduate of Brien McMahon, first became involved in the celebration about 15 years ago for 10 years, and now she is back for her second cycle. She is also festival director for the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.
"I was given some scholarship money from the city of Norwalk and from various organizations including the Arts Council. And it started as a way to give something back. I got my degree in arts education and I thought this was a tremendous way to educate more than I could ever do just in one classroom," Brown Gordon said.
"There's always been an artistic buzz in SoNo even when I was in high school.... It's always been an area that's felt transitional, maybe that's because it's because it's so close to the water, it's just the natural tide of things.
"The fact that the Arts Council is active again says a lot about people's desires and energies focused in that direction....People have always been drawn to this area for a reason and have been inspired by it. It's just a natural to be a creative city. I don't know that we always appreciate that enough."
Getting people to develop a clear appreciation of the arts on the streets of SoNo and showcase the talent from the local community was the reason the SoNo Arts Celebration was started in the first place 34 years ago under the watchful eye of John Cusano, now the community development coordinator for the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism in Hartford. The South Norwalk Arts Celebration, Inc. the producing body of the SoNo Arts Celebration, is a federally designated 501 (c) 3 non-profit corporation based in Sono.
"John was a gallery owner on Washington Street and always stayed true to his mission of educating and helping artists. Now he's taken it to the state level. It's really something to aspire to," Brown Gordon said.
"I recently ran into him at the Westport Arts Festival. He was really just so excited that the SoNo Arts Celebration was doing well.
"People need to be in an environment where it's really not threatening and accessible. And so maybe they don't know they like art, until they come down and have a real positive experience and before you know it you're hooked and you are in the mix of it and the next thing you know a puppet parade is marching behind you and the next thing you know you just had a great day in Norwalk."
Brown Gordon designs jewelry and paints and her husband David is also a painter.
"This is the first show of the year for me as an artist. I really try to `bring it' for this show. This was one of the first shows I ever did as an exhibitor....
I also met my husband at the SoNo Arts Celebration, so it is a serious anniversary date for me," she added with a laugh.
But on a serious note she added, "The reason I put so much passion into really making it a top notch event--I am inviting all these artists to Norwalk, people I have known since I started. People I meet when I am at other events around the country. I feel a dedication and a responsibility to make sure the event is fabulous for these people I am inviting from all over the country."