DF: First, can you tell me the first time you knew you were interested in kites?
S: Yeah, I think unfortunately it was after graduating from college from the Air Force Academy. I was in pilot training and almost finished. Flew to San Francisco on a cross-country and just was looking around San Francisco, in the middle 70s, and walked into a kite store and thought, “This looks interesting because it’s kind of a follow onto flight but it’s much more casual, much more free, much more just plain fun.” And I bought my first kites there, and casually was interested in kites for the next almost ten years, just buying them when I’d find a kite store and new designs and looking for new designs, looking for things that people were doing. And then, in about 1983, I was convinced that maybe I could start making my own as well and went to my first American Kitefliers Association convention in 1984.That really opened my eyes to what people were doing, serious people were doing. And I realized that the things that were out there commercially were a very small segment of the kite population. But I think it was good because I’d seen kites for eight or nine or ten years by that time. I knew what I didn’t like in the air and I think that’s really important. And so, when I started making kites, I never started with the common shapes and the common colors. I always looked for something different, just to be an individual, I think. And very shortly found Tal Streeter’s book, The Art of the Japanese Kite. That showed me many of the Japanese shapes; they were geometric. When I saw that I thought I could make geometric quilt patterns (that are very much an American tradition) and lay those patterns onto Japanese kite shapes, which are also geometric. So I could marry the two traditional forms and the two traditional crafts. So from the start I used geometric patchwork exclusively. I have never done anything other than that—because I learned early on that you could take one patchwork block and give it to a hundred different people and what they do with it would be completely different from one another. So it’s much different from an appliqué approach, where if you give someone a picture of a lighthouse all the pictures of the lighthouse are going to come out almost the same, or very similar to one another. But with patchwork it just doesn’t work that way. People’s choices of color, and then their expression within the pattern, changes. So that really convinced me that that was broad enough, as far as a medium or a way of expressing what I wanted to with kites. And very shortly after just making geometric patterns, I decided that, well, some of these patterns could be used in animals, in figure kites.
DF: Like the owls?
S: Like the owls. The first thing I did was a big turtle. And all of a sudden I could do anything: snakes and birds and fish. They all have something in their design that’s geometric and so if you play with the geometric quilt patterns you can all of a sudden do much more than just get a sampler of a quilt.
DF: Now what were the original materials you were working with?
S: I used modern kite making materials, ripstop nylon predominantly, and a variety of sticks from wood to carbon fiber to fiberglass—all the things that contemporary kite makers use. One of the things that really influenced me is that ripstop colors come in a very narrow palette, and so I normally will chose high contrast and very few colors. And, in fact, then realize that if you overlap the same color you can get shading, interesting variations and most of those blends occur when you have different light in the sky. So it combines the limitations of the fabric with the great openness of the environment, and so you get different light during the day. And even though I might have a two color kite—very bold statement—it will change during the day because I will have shadows in there, and I’ve got layers and things. If you see everything the first time you look, then I’ve failed. I really feel that way. That drove me in a direction. So now most of my big kites are generally speaking one color with either some contrast or variation, or sometimes using light and shadow with layers. They take a while for people to look at them and really realize what’s going on. I like that, I like that a lot.
I’ve been to Japan many times with my own kites, and, on almost every trip to Japan, I started buying Japanese papers because I thought they were beautiful, just on their own. I figured at some point along the way I would have a use for them. I didn’t know what the use was, whether it was kite making or something else. About five years ago or so I discovered the tool that made it possible for me to do the same thing with paper that I have been doing with ripstop, that is, geometric patchwork. And that tool was two millimeter-wide double-sided tape. You can paste all these seams with your fingers and with glue sticks, but at the scale that we’re working, and the scale I like to work with paper, that’s very uncontrolled. You’re constantly cleaning up. It’s just messy, and it’s just not very pleasing. But with the millimeter tape you can lay it down in an exact straight line, and you can control all your seams. I found that even kites I had made four or five years ago still hold up. The tape still sticks: the tape is almost as strong as the paper, or the adhesive is almost as strong as the paper. So, in fact, they are still paper kites: they are still meant to be ephemeral; they’re meant to be lost at some point along the way; they’re not permanent, and I don’t think that tape has to be permanent either. But it gave me the ability to do patchwork with paper. And I think the biggest difference is that you have such a huge palette with paper. Not only color but pattern, just like a quilt artist does. You’ve got patterns, you’ve got different weights of paper, you have different densities, different color densities and so you have many, many more variations to throw into your design work. And, in fact, even in the four or five years that I’ve been doing it, I’ve really started from that same point that I was with ripstop: that is, very simple, one or two colored kites, for the most part, and then a little bit of variation, again using the same principles of layering, or different weights for different effects in the sky. And that pretty much brings us up to today.
DF: Can you talk a little bit about the workshop and how it came about?
S: Yeah, probably three or four years ago, talking with Robert Trepanier, who’s here, and Peter Lynn from New Zealand, they had had a conversation with another fellow about contests driving results, driving the way people do things. It was their argument that if you have a prize for the best traction kite, the best seaworthy kite, or the best kite made out of paper, that would drive people to use that material, to really do better, to do more things. And, in fact, as soon as I heard Robert say that, I thought we should do this with paper. It doesn’t have to be a big prize—it doesn’t even really have to be a big contest—but it will get people thinking about paper.
DF: So why did it seem important for you to develop more creativity and more innovation in using paper?
S: Well, I think number one, almost all cultures that make kites use paper as the medium for the kite’s surface because they are usually poor countries, poor children. Economically, that’s what you are going to do. But, number two, it opens kites to so many other people who might be put off. If you don’t sew, if you don’t want to work at a big scale, then paper is much more pleasing. You can make a kite on a small table…
DF: It’s accessible.
S: It’s accessible. If you are an artist, if you are used to working with paper as a medium, then it’s a natural to put your artwork onto something that’s sky bound. Photographers, anyone who uses a paper medium, can now all of a sudden say, “Well, I can push this into a kite form and make it very interesting.” You can’t do that with most modern materials. Even ripstop nylon is very difficult to paint on. It doesn’t hold the paint because of all the different coatings that they use. Sometimes it will work and the next time you do it, it won’t work because the coating is too slippery for the paint. So, I think the biggest thing was we at the foundation want to talk more to people outside of the kite community rather than people in the kite community. People in the kite community are already serious, they are already interested, and certainly we can make things that are interesting to them. But I think it’s a much bigger job, and a more interesting job, to push kites out into the community at large, talk to architecture students, talk to art students, talk to culture students, and bring them in that way. And paper is a very easy way to do that because you can make small things that are non-threatening, completely, that work. Once they have something that works, then they’re pleased, and they can go on and do something else—even if they make the same form over and over again. It’s still something that brings them to the kite world. And I think the only thing that makes the kite world interesting is if new people come to it and bring new skills and new backgrounds. If we all just talk to ourselves, what interest is that? After a while you’ve heard it all--even if everyone does a different thing.
DF: So it’s an attempt to expand the kite world and innovation in the kite world.
S: Truly. Yes, absolutely. And you can do anything with paper that you can do on a big scale with modern materials. Really, the only limitation with paper is that it’s susceptible to weather. So you can’t take it out in a rain storm, but otherwise, at the scale that you normally work with paper, it’s just as durable as most fabrics. It does what it is supposed to do—it flies, it works for what you’ve used it for. So if it disintegrates in ten years, that’s OK. You don’t have the big economic investment, you don’t have a huge investment in time, and normally you have the materials to do everything you need to do. So it’s much less threatening than a lot of modern kite making has become. I think that’s a real attraction.
DF: Could you also say a few words about this week in terms of both how it’s going, the personal dynamic, but also if you want to talk about your work or what it’s like to work with the other artists?
S: I think, first of all, this year the gathering was really an invitational. We looked at people who had had some experience with paper kites, people who we knew were doing innovative things, and we invited those people. It happened to be that four of those people were Germans and one an Austrian.
DF: A lot of Germans!
S: Yes, and then the Canadian and I from the North American continent, and then Yoshizumi-san from Japan. And really our intent was that Yoshizumi-san could be here to help in any way in using natural materials because he is so adept and expert. And I think he’s done that. I think he’s been there for people to ask questions and to drive them in the right direction when they have a problem. So he really was the enabler, perhaps, but still is making his own kites as well.
There is a different variety of techniques, some very free, painted techniques; others, Anke Sauer and myself, are doing modular work, if you will, either patchwork in my case, or, in her case, the small paper pyramids. And so it’s repetitive, but once you build the repetition, all of a sudden something amazing comes out. And then there’s the very free work of Anna Rubin, who uses natural materials to make her kites, uses very open forms and very unexpected forms to be used in kites. I think the end result is a gathering that will give results that are across the spectrum of kites: some very traditional kites—done, perhaps, in nontraditional ways—but very traditional forms; others completely innovative, free-form; still others, portraits or unexpected looks at people, or things in the air. So I think as an inspirational tool it will be really exciting because it also shows the viewer that you don’t have to be a technician to get results. You don’t have to be a great knot tier or bamboo splitter. You can use very simple sticks and just support here and there and make things work. You don’t have to be a great painter; you have other avenues. If you are a painter, you might find a way to use your work or put your work into a kite form or into a free-form object that flies. So I think the end results are exciting in that way, in that it gives you at least an inkling of the spectrum that is out there.
No one, really, with the exception of two of us, Yoshizumi-san and myself, has used traditional forms. Almost everyone has gone outside, and so if you even draw back one step and start with traditional forms, then you have a completely different outlet than what most of us have shown here. So I think that’s the exciting thing. It also, I think, shows that young people can do it very well, at a very high skill level. Older people can do it; very old people can do it. Anyone, it’s open to anyone. We’ve got a mixture of men and women, a mixture of ages from low twenties to sixties, I think. So if that’s not an accessible outlet or medium, then I don’t know what is. So that’s really exciting, I think.
DF: That’s it for my questions. Is there anything else you want to say?
S: I guess, the only other thing may be about falling into using the Panama Hotel here. It’s really an ideal situation because we’re close to downtown Seattle, and we’re all in one place, which I think leads to interaction before, during and after the time in the workshop. It’s a link to the strongest kite cultures, the Asian kite cultures, which I think is important for us to always remember.
DF: The history of the neighborhood, you mean, and being in the International District?
S: Yes, just being in the Asian area of the city, it kind of clicks in your mind that we’re a lot closer to that culture at this point or in this hobby than we might otherwise be. And so it’s just really been an ideal marriage to have us all in one place, have the ability to eat, sleep and drink kites. I think that brings out the best in everyone as well.
DF: And that’s what makes it unique from other workshops you’ve attended as well?
S: It does. There are other workshops where you are more or less cloistered, if you will. But number one, the size of the group: it’s a small group so there is a tremendous amount of energy all in one room. And that’s a little unusual. Usually there are a lot of things that tear you away from the creativity, whether you are doing workshops, or one person has to go lecture and one person has to do this or that or the other thing. You seldom get everybody in one room
DF: It’s really concentrated
S: It is much more concentrated, and we all talked about that. We think that the week is just about enough time: more than that, it would almost be intimidating. You wouldn’t know what to build.
DF: You’d have to pace yourself.
S: You’d want to build the big thing. You wouldn’t be sure of what was expected to come out. With a week it is a limitation but it is a good parameter. It’s a good way to keep you driving through and getting things done. I think that’s been ideal. And I think long term we hope to do this again, maybe in a slightly different format. Again, as we do paper kite workshops to increase interest in use of paper, we’ll continue to do some sort of contest where maybe the reward is to come and be one of the resident artists. I think that would be really exciting because, then again, you would get a mixture of people who are new or less experienced: some people who are very experienced but haven’t worked with paper, and others who are both experienced with paper and very adept at using it. So you are always getting a new mix of people, and it’s exciting to see what comes out and how a very simple idea from one end of that spectrum can drive someone who has all the experience in the world, and has seen everything. Those two can still get together and produce something really exciting, really new.
DF: And inspire each other.