Photo courtesy of Cheryl Capezzuti
These puppets are featured in Capezzuti’s “Puppets for Pittsburgh” project, where residents can check out puppets with a library card at the Braddock Carnegie Library or the Bethel Park Community Library. Click here for more information.

By Alexandria Stryker

Pittsburgh’s Bicentennial Day Parade was a celebration of 200 years of the city’s unique culture and achievements, a spectacle that included a display of Pittsburgh’s popular figures — in the form of a 10-feet tall puppet march.

For puppet maker Cheryl Capezzuti, a Northside resident, these puppets were a central part of the festivities on July 9. She has been creating these figures for 20 years, but the commission by Mayor Bill Peduto’s Bicentennial Committee was her biggest project to date.

It was an “honor” to create the “centerpiece projects of such a big event,” Capezzuti said. The puppets, worn on a backpack over their “operator,” were designed to tell the history of the city through representations of Pittsburgh individuals from the past, present and future. While “mainstream” figures took their place in the lineup, such as George Washington, Andy Warhol, Mr. Rogers, Andrew Carnegie, and even Mayor Peduto, Capezzuti also took special effort to include “non-obvious” characters as well.

Pittsburgh was a land “special to people for thousands of years before [Europeans] arrived here,” Capezzuti said, and the inclusion of a Queen Aliquippa puppet pays homage to this. The Seneca tribe leader’s alliance with General Washington and the British was critical during the French and Indian War. Likewise, the relatively unknown African American community activist Dorothy Mae Richardson was critical in the development of the NeighborWorks America fair housing nonprofit. Her work on the Central Northside allowed her representation a spot in the parade. Each puppet was given a name tag, and their significance was narrated from the grandstand in Market Square.

In addition to specific figures, Capezzuti also represented a “dream for the future of Pittsburgh” with a puppet doctor, chef, professor and “techie.” These professionals symbolize the mix of people and industries fueling the economy in Pittsburgh. The message, according to the artist: “We welcome people from around the world to make our city great.”

According to Capezzuti, puppet making was her “avenue into the art world that started as a project and became a passion.” While attending college at Penn State, she participated in a puppet workshop with artist Sara Peattie and was later hired to do puppet work for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Capezzuti went into college with the intention of becoming an architect, and this background in construction and design lent itself to her special area of focus. While showing some photos of her creations to others, Capezzuti claimed “I’m a puppet maker.” The rest is history.

On her website, the artist’s biography describes a person “whose work is inseparable from the communities in which she creates.” For the bicentennial parade, Capezzuti’s crew of seven people created 17 pieces in only 10 days. Though the artist does have a paid crew, it is common for children, neighbors and friends to volunteer their help in building these puppets. Generally, the pieces consist of a hollow cardboard structure with paper mache and paint later added to bring them to life. The puppets also wear costumes sewn by one of Capezzuti’s neighbors.

Community-based production seems to be the essence of this artist’s unique work.

Capezzuti has about 300 pieces to her name that have been built over her career, including some as old as 10 years. According to her, the puppets are “more durable than you would expect.” The materials used are easy to repair, and the puppets themselves are “not precious objects,” but are meant to be used and appreciated.

The creations certainly have been enjoyed. Capezzuti is the founder of Puppets for Pittsburgh, a lending library project for her creations that is based in the Braddock Carnegie Library and the Bethel Park Community Library, mostly because these two locations have the necessary storage space for the large creations. However, the puppets can be circulated to any library in Allegheny County upon request. Those closer to the Northside who are interested in checking out pieces can also contact Capezzuti to pick up pieces from her studio in Brighton Heights. The borrowed puppets are used for a variety of events across the city, including community events — such as church fairs and neighborhood parades — and fundraising walks. In one instance, the puppets were used for a Woodland Hills prom night.

In addition to the lending library project, Capezzuti has built an impressive resume. She has worked for several parades, held over 50 residencies at various schools through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and conducts workshop series for the public. The artist also holds a faculty position at the Falk Laboratory School at the University of Pittsburgh, teaching puppetry to students.

Capezzuti is a Pittsburgh native and a Northside resident, and she has chosen to make her home and career in a city she felt she wouldn’t have to be “a slave to a nine-to-five job.” While looking for a property with a carriage house for an art studio, Capezzuti consulted her mother, a real estate agent who grew up in Spring Hill, who pointed her towards the Northside. Capezzuti and her husband loved Brighton Heights, instantly knowing this was home. According to her, the “combination of space, location, affordability and neighborhood feel makes [the area] special to me.”

The “neighborhood feel” of Pittsburgh, especially on the Northside, is perfect for the artist’s community-driven projects. “I’ll be like an old lady here,” Capezutti said of the neighborhood and the city, laughing. “I’ll never leave.”

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Photo by Theresa Casciato
Photo by Theresa Casciato
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Photo by Theresa Casciato
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Photo by Theresa Casciato
Photo by Theresa Casciato
Photo by Theresa Casciato
Photo by Theresa Casciato