There are three designated arts and entertainment districts in Montgomery County, and one of them is Wheaton. Which is why Jim Epstein is standing in a dedicated art gallery on the second floor of the Westfield Wheaton mall, where the work of local artists hangs on the walls and display panels, and a stack of neon-bright posters sits on the counter, emblazoned with the details of a very important upcoming event.
“This is the third annual Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival,” said Epstein, one of two Wheaton artists who co-founded the celebration of imagination and community. “All the artists that exhibit in the gallery are required to participate in the parade and festival. Some are exhibiting in tents, some are also parading, some are dressing up as their favorite artists, or favorite paintings, doing a tableau vivant — all sorts of fun stuff!”
“We would not be here were it not for Westfield,” said Dan Thompson, the event’s co-founder, who lives in Wheaton and served on the Wheaton Urban Development Advisory Committee (WUDAC), upon which Epstein currently sits. “There’s a convergence going on here: citizens, culture and commerce. We care about our community, and art makes it a better place.”
So the gallery — an artistic co-op where 25 artists can show and sell their work, provided they take turns keeping shop and participate in the Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival — has been donated by Westfield, which also provides a space where the community can create and store a key component of any parade: floats. They live in a massive studio on the other side of the food court: Vincent Van Gogh in a field of sunflowers, a bedazzled Albert Einstein, a Pegasus-unicorn, the “Wheaton Walrus,” made completely of recycled materials — even a tableau of one of Michelangelo’s most famous creations that depicts Adam taking a cellphone selfie, named “The Narcissis-tine Chapel.”
That last one — okay, many of the floats — sprang from the mind of Thompson, although the duo has enlisted the help of students, teachers and community members (as well as fellow artists) to create the bright and beautiful floats that will sail down Georgia Avenue on Sunday.
“I’m an actor and a producer, and an event coordinator and performer,” said Epstein. “Dan is an ex-actor and ex-government employee — and creates incredible floats.”
One of those incredible floats, however, is the work of Sofia Hart. The artist, teacher and stay-at-home mom was walking from Metro to the parking lot when she first crossed paths with the Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival. “I loved that it was happening — it felt so local, so grassroots,” said Hart. “I didn’t see the parade that year, but I saw the art. I had a booth in 2018, and then this year, I was ready.”
She wrote a grant application and got some money; had “a vision” and got Wheaton Area Moms (the nurturing support group for parents to which she belongs) on board, and collaborated with friends and fellow artists to create a float featuring a mother and child as well as flora and fauna from the Cerrado, the tropical savannah in her native Brazil. “I never in my life thought I’d move to Maryland, but I love it here,” said Hart. “I love living in Wheaton!”
That’s the kind of enthusiasm the Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival organizers want to spotlight. Thompson said the idea for the event came to him when he visited Cleveland, Ohio four years ago.
“They had ‘Parade the Circle,’” he recalled. “And I thought, we can parade the triangle, because Wheaton is a triangle. University Boulevard., Georgia Avenue, Veirs Mill Road — Wheaton is defined by that intersection, and so it was a metaphor and a reality. Here in the most diverse community in Montgomery County, we all have a common interest: to make our lives better and to make our community better.”
The answer, Epstein and Thompson insist, is art. “On this day, anyone can be an artist,” said Thompson, noting that art, the common denominator that brings families, neighborhoods, businesses, artists and performers to the parade, is a jumping-off point for a day filled with family friendly fun. “Everything opens at 10,” noted Epstein, “but you’re going to want to see the parade. Anywhere on Price or Georgia [avenues]; there are performance stops along the parade route, and of course, a reviewing stand.”
In addition to the parade itself, there will be 70 tents with exhibits by artists and community organizations, and three performance spaces for a variety of musical, dance and spoken word artists. Look for hip-hop/go-go phenom Christylez Bacon, singer-songwriter Chris Urquiaga, the steel drum sounds of Josanne Francis Trio, dancers from the Wheaton High School Pom Squad, the Northwood High School Drumline and Dance Team, the Culkin School of Irish Dance and the Wheaton Studio of Dance, plus storytellers, poets and performers from a variety of nations and cultures. There’s even a food court, for folks who want to make a day of it.
A year’s worth of work organizing, planning, creating and executing means the Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival “is sort of like Mardi Gras,” according to Thompson. “We start our year right after the parade is over.”
Until that moment, though, the focus is on this year’s celebration: a day dedicated to Wheaton, its community, and the artists who call it home.
The Wheaton Arts Parade and Festival will take place on Sunday, Sept. 22, rain or shine. The parade starts at 10 a.m., marching up the northbound lanes of Georgia Avenue from the intersection at Veirs Mill Road, making right turns onto Price Avenue and Fern Street to the festival, which goes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Wheaton Veterans Urban Park, 11200 Amherst Ave., Wheaton. Admission is free. Visit www.wheatonartsparade.org.