Interview with Robert Trépanier
DF: Do you remember the first time you flew kites?
(first part of story lost because microphone was off)
R: And so I didn’t want to bring the kite down so I attached it to the fence. The next morning I just ran on down and the kite was still flying.
DF: You mean overnight, it flew?
R: Overnight. It flew. Maybe it went up and down. I don’t know, but it was still flying in the morning. And after that the older people, you know, my parents they all said, “His kite was flying all night!” And, you know, when you’re seven this is the first important thing you’ve done that adults are talking about. This and then after that, you know, when you’re young, but still, I had interest in air things, just plain paper planes and things like that. So I went to school, industrial design. Obviously there you are interested in material, in ways of working with material, the process of manufacturing things. Of course you do a lot of drawing and you always have sketch books. So I always had little sketches of kites. And when I was twenty (that was twenty-eight years ago) I worked in a kite shop in Montreal, so I got more information and I got books. From then on I kept making more kites but they were just traditional nylon kites and then I added these to my sketch books, drawings and paintings and things like that. And there was no way to put those things together. It was like art on the one side and technical kite making on the other, and I kept looking for materials and ways to paint on a kite. I didn’t want to make any compromises, either on the flight or the art part, so it took me a long time to figure out how to print or paint on ripstop. In Canada there is no bamboo, and I didn’t know anything about paper or bamboo at that time. It was just modern materials.
DF: So, you started with modern materials…
R: Yes, in fact I did some kites and I went to kite festivals and from there I was invited to another kite festival and so on, and so on for maybe the last ten to fifteen years.
DF: So, last night at dinner you mentioned about how you got interested in paper kites. Could you say that one more time? Because that was so interesting.
R: From the point of the paper kite project here…
DF: Yeah, how you were saying at these festivals the judging kind of directs the creation of new kites.
R: It’s because at some festivals…not all festivals have contests, but some have contests or ‘best kite of the year,’ and all the rules of the contests are the points of how they will judge the kites. This will govern the direction people will produce kites, will make kites. Because you see that, after years and years of judging, certain kinds of kites get made: technical kites, or really well made kites, or not too much focus on the artistic part, but more on the technical part. So then it’s more about innovation and technical skill. The judging criteria govern the way people present new entries in these contests. And this directs the way the contest itself will go. It depends on the way you judge it, and on who is judging it, too. And so it’s possible to steer the development of kites, because a big contest pushes the way new kites develop or are made—because it creates an interest in certain kinds of kites. People will work a long time to make kites that will be good for a contest. That’s why I said (this was just talking at night once with other kiters) that if you put a big amount of money towards something new and different, for the first paper kite contest, for example, then this will steer the direction in which people will develop kites. It will be a motivation for people to search in that direction. And I told that to Scott Skinner once, and then the next morning he said, “OK, I will steal your idea and make a paper kite contest.” (laughs) OK. But for me, as I told you, I’ve never really worked with bamboo and paper before. I’ve started working with these materials…but they are not the main materials I normally work with because it’s really hard to make something big out of paper and bamboo. Or, if you can get it big, it’s hard to fold up and carry. So you’re stuck with a big thing that you can hardly carry around. And so I try to work with other more modern materials. I work with both, but most of my production is with modern materials.
DF: So, is the paper shop that you were telling me about in Quebec, is that what got you interested in paper?
R: No, I found the paper shop at the same time I was looking for paper, but at a different art supply store. But very early on I discovered a paper shop called papier japonais, Japanese paper. And they have many, many, many kinds of paper. They have more than 400 different kinds of paper. And it’s in a tiny, tiny, tiny little place. The people are very friendly, and they do workshops, a lot of different workshops. There’s lamp making, calligraphy, origami, and kites, of course, many. I think there’s thirty-five different workshops. They have a big room, just to do the workshops. And it’s a nice little place. In fact, it’s a room of paper, because there are so many different papers and so many qualities and so many textures - it’s a world by itself. And at that store they did a presentation on how the paper’s made and invited people from Japan to show slides and explain how they make the paper themselves. It’s really handmade. It’s just hard work and cold water and it’s very traditional. It’s just on the farm: it’s winter, it’s cold and sometimes they don’t even do it the whole year. They are farmers—they do fruit—and in the winter papermaking is what they do. It’s very small—some are big—but the real handmade paper is from small cottage industries where people make it in small barns behind their houses. It’s like that.
DF: So you helped Scott think of this idea (for the workshop). Is this what you had imagined? What’s happening this week…
R: It’s very fun. It’s interesting. Because at the same time there are many other people, who got into paper and kite making like Anna, Kisa, Christine, and so that’s interesting. But, at the same time, many other people, like Phillip Cottenceau from France, are making beautiful kites out of paper. So it’s developing slowly, but what he [Scott] is is more like a catalyst, to jumpstart things and to push the innovation, the (paper kite) prize or the contest. On the other hand we have these workshops, which are not the end in and of themselves. I might not be doing very beautiful kites here, but it’s just a place to exchange ideas and to get a synergy to go further and explore
DF: Like a seed…
R: Yeah, and to explore. And the fact that we’re doing it together in the same room and we can see what other people are doing and the way they’re doing it. It’s just like brainstorming. And I think we’re only at the beginning of this. We’re really just dabbling with paper right now.
DF: It’s at the experimental stage
R: It’s at the experimental stage. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t very beautiful things being done here, but we’ve only just opened the door. There’s room for more growth because of the freedom of the material itself, and the speed with which you can do things. In an hour, two hours you can do something interesting because it’s really fast. Also, everybody knows how to work with paper, Elmer’s glue, sticks, knots and line. It’s nothing technical, nothing complex. It’s not high tech.
DF: So, you feel more free to experiment?
R: Yep, because it’s never a big investment. You know, a sheet of paper, two pieces of bamboo. You spend a good evening making kites, folding and gluing paper together and then you learn. And like the text that Scott wrote for this project said, it’s to bring the art kite into the art world because we are kite artists, but we are kite artists in the kite world, not in the real world. There’s no place for us in galleries or places like that. They say, “Oh you’re making toys; there is nothing really serious.” And if paper kites can do that, if they can open the doors to galleries and let us be recognized as real artists, who do sky art rather than land art, great. I think the size and style of paper and bamboo kites fits better in galleries than the big huge things built with modern materials.
DF: Oh really, the size (is better)?
R: The size and when you look at them closely you can appreciate the beauty of the material itself: the texture and craftsmanship. You feel close to it because you see it’s only knots, paper and glue, very simple things, but what we’re able to do with it…as I say we’re only at the beginning of this.
DF: So would you say that it’s sort of an end vision to be able to exhibit in galleries?
R: I think it could be a goal. Yes, it could be something interesting to do. But for me, even for my personal work, not just the paper thing, it has always been hard to show in galleries. Because I know kites are used to being flown with big open spaces around them, so when you put them on the wall…they’re just stuck on the wall. In the air they always get movement and light. It’s different with the clouds moving in the background. It’s whimsical, but if you just nail them inside it’s just “chchch” (nail pounding noise). It also takes up a huge amount of space to be able to show something that big. They’re like six, seven, eight thousand feet, so it’s difficult to show in galleries because of that. And the other goal is just to show the kites to people. When we go to kite festivals there are some with 5,000, 10,000, people, some more than that. So if the point is just to show our work to people, then we can go to kite festivals and do that. But it’s not the same audience as the people interested in art. But I still think there’s a place for art kites in galleries. Who, where, I don’t know.
DF: Maybe it will develop?
R: Yes, you have a pretty nice gallery in Seattle.
DF: I think that was about it. Did you have anything else?
R: Thank you for inviting me here. Thank you, Drachen Foundation.