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WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
|Getting a Lift
In art and science, playtime and war, kites count
To aficionados, though, kites are hardly kid's stuff. They represent ingenuity, patience, skill, a connection to the natural world. Kites are, or have been, used to sail, surf and ski, celebrate and spy, worship and make war, test or kill bats, pull buggies, communicate across oceans, measure atmosphere, fish, compete, photograph. There are box kites, soft kites, art kites, leaf kites, singing kites. Some kites so big they take dozens of people to hang onto them, and some about the size of a penny.
Of all places, the hyperlinked, java-wired city of Seattle is home to an international foundation filling a unique niche of exploring the scientific, historical, artistic and sometimes bizarre world of kites.
It happened in a random way, as unexpected as the next gust of wind. About 12 years ago, a former Air Force pilot from Colorado missed connections with a tour group and ended up wandering the halls of a Beijing Holiday Inn. He ran into a Seattle woman, Ali Fujino, who was there on business. Fujino and the pilot, Scott Skinner, struck up a conversation and he informed her, "I'm going to the birthplace of kites." Fujino's initial thought was, "Well . . . that's nice."
"Like tens of thousands of people just appeared," Fujino said. "It was like a Cecil B. De Mille movie. I've been a lot of places, but this was remarkable. Within moments, they were all there, and within moments they were all gone."
It made an impression on both of them but especially Skinner, whose investment and business success had enabled him to pursue his love of kites almost full time. First he started a small kite-pin business, but he really wanted to share and show off his impressive kite collection. He asked Fujino, who had worked at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and later at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, if she'd help him get a kite museum off the ground.
She found museums too cumbersome and rule-bound, so she said no. But she suggested Skinner satisfy his passion for spreading the kite word by creating a foundation and study center. No one was doing that. So by 1994, Skinner created the Drachen Foundation. He put it in Seattle partly because it's a do-able plane trip to various kite locales around the world, and also because Fujino lives here and agreed to operate it.
History and science are covered, as well, including the early aeronautical explorations of Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Franklin Cody's "man-lifters." There are kite books from dozens of countries, alphabetized files and thousands of slides.
The long worktable with the study area is often cluttered with kites coming in or getting ready to be shipped out and paper-and-sticks kits that are part of the foundation's worldwide paper-kite contest. Instead of expecting kiters to come to Seattle, Drachen is set up to export parts of its collection or act as a broker between other collections and venues across the world.
"One of my frustrations working at the Smithsonian was, what good are 65 billion items going to do if they aren't accessible?" Fujino says. "When we travel with kites we're not going to get neurotic when a stick gets broken. If the kites don't make an impression, then what good do they do?"
Skinner and Fujino are both in their late 40s and suitably breezy people, but Drachen's ambitions are grand: using the forgotten kite to explore, teach and exhibit around the world. In that regard, it's like a lone kite flyer letting out line and reaching into the vast sky.
The Chinese quickly adapted for military purposes. One legend has it that in about 204 B.C., Gen. Han Hsin had a kite flown over the walls of a fortress he wanted to invade so he could measure the distance his men would need to tunnel. The strategy worked; the general won the battle and the kite won a measure of relevance. China's tradition spread into Japan and Korea and then to Europe, thanks to explorer Marco Polo.
Eastern cultures have always appreciated the kite's religious, artistic and social aspects, while the West was more interested in aeronautics and inventions. America's most famous kite-flyer was Benjamin Franklin, who, in 1752, combined scientific curiosity with the dangerous idea of flying a kite with a brass key attached during a thunderstorm. In the 1880s, a kite was used to carry a cable across the Niagara River from the U.S. to the Canadian side so a suspension bridge could be built.
An English schoolmaster named George Pocock developed a way to propel his carriage by kite power. He claimed to have reached 20 mph and boasted how it allowed him to bypass toll gates because royal regulations covered only horse-propelled vehicles. Soon, Guglielmo Marconi was able to broadcast across the Atlantic by using a kite to raise an antenna.
The kite's greatest contribution, though, is to flight. Orville and Wilbur Wright's pioneering flight at Kitty Hawk began with their kite fascination. They used gliders tethered to the ground to study aerodynamics. After he became rich by inventing the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell turned to the kite and flight. He didn't contribute much to the airplane, but he made impressive, distinctive kites that are geometry lessons. One of his kites, built and tested in Nova Scotia, consisted of 3,393 tetrahedral cells and in 1907 carried a man 168 feet in the air for seven minutes.
By 1901 he had patented his winged "man-lifter," and eventually became the first person to make an officially recognized manned flight over the United Kingdom. The British military hired him to apply his expertise. In the end, Cody not only became an important figure in the nexus between kiting and airplanes, but he achieved cult status. After he died in a plane accident in 1913, 50,000 people attended his funeral. Cody clubs still gather, and symposiums on his work are still held.
When Drachen learned that Sotheby's was going to auction Cody's archives five years ago, Fujino went to prevent the pertinent material from being scattered into various private collections. Other bidders had no idea who Drachen or Fujino was. She believes they thought she was representing a well-stocked Japanese concern, dampening their optimism that they could outbid her. As a result, she snagged glass-plate slides of his trials and fieldwork, garish posters and journals in which Cody described his experiments through drawings and sketches.
WHILE SKINNER finances the vast majority of Drachen's annual budget, which totals about $200,000 this year, Fujino is the foundation's administrator and sole full-time employee. She depends on help from a part-time assistant, Melissa McKelvey, several volunteers who help pack and teach, and free-lancers from around the world who write about kites for the Drachen newsletter.
She spends much of her time working through details involved in the arcane world of kite collections, trying to document as much as possible, tackling research projects and setting up exhibits, symposiums and classes.
She is well-traveled, including a stint in Honduras with the Peace Corps, and curious enough to have an extensive chair collection because she's captivated by where and how people sit.
She is also something of a finagler. When she made the U.S. boomerang team (the only woman) she approached Land's End about sponsoring them. Not only did the company provide their clothes, it manufactured boomerang-shaped bags. When she was with the Museum of Flight, she was on the team that arranged to bring the Concorde to town. Later, she came up with a plan to put the Goodyear blimp inside the museum and rotate it before the building's roof was put on. The idea was to show how big the building was, but mostly to get publicity. "I became the resident wacko with that idea," she says, laughing. "My boss, said, 'Ali, you've gone too far this time!' "
Consequently, Drachen files also hold oddities, including information on a woman who is convinced the ancient Egyptians used kites to build the pyramids and a Canadian who is obsessed with the kite-flying altitude record.
Drachen funds all kinds of studies and projects, but it has built a lasting connection with Ben Balsley, a University of Colorado researcher who uses kites to conduct high-altitude studies. In one that Drachen helped pay for, Balsley used his expertise to help the University of Tennessee study the effects bats were having on crop-ravaging pests.
The foundation teaches kite-making and sponsors talks and demonstrations from local schools to The Netherlands, and ships kites and paraphernalia all over the world. They know fragile kites can get lost or broken, but none have yet. So they keep kites in context. In fact, the closest they get to pretentious is the name. Skinner acknowledges he settled on "drachen," the obscure German term for kite and dragon because he thought it would make people curious.
"We were concerned that if we named it the Kite Foundation a lot of people would just dismiss us. When people hear Drachen, maybe they'll ask, 'What's that?' "
A trip around Drachen's collection provides a glimpse of cultures through kites. Framed Indonesian leaf kites, one showing the front, another the back and a third showing one half-completed, represent a method long used to catch slim garfish, a delicacy. While sitting in his boat, the fisherman will position his kite 100 feet or more away. A line hangs down, lapping the water like a fly-fishing ploy. The end of the line is tied in such a way that it snags the fish's teeth.
A Cambodian brown-paper kite rests against one wall. Shaped vaguely in human form, it is adorned only by a cornstalk tail and a few bright streamers. What makes it most distinct is a thin, wood bar known as a "hummer" that stretches across the top. Because of string stretching tautly across it, the hummer makes the kite sing various notes, depending on the velocity and angle of the wind.
In Guatemala, big, round paper-and-bamboo kites with intricate paintings are sent up on a day designated as a memorial to the dead. Once flying high, the lines are torched, sending the kites drifting skyward.
Drachen has a few mean-looking Philippines fighter kites with spars sticking out all ends to puncture the opposition. In India and several other countries, kite-fighters coat their lines with a paste of fine crushed glass to saw competitors' lines and send kites wafting away. In the U.S., contests are far tamer, with judging and points given for touches, much like in fencing.
Skinner is an avid collector of Japan's beautiful art kites and co-authored a book with Fujino titled, "Kite: Paper Wings over Japan." Drachen has also published "Hidden Symmetry," a book by Hungarian Istvan Bodoczky in which he discusses high-brow art concepts such as negative space but puts them into the context of a dancing canvas hundreds of feet in the sky.
Sometimes kites are not the canvas, but the brush. Drachen has several framed examples of work by French photographer Nico Chortier, who travels the world using his kite to shoot unique angles of events and landmarks. At a recent religious festival in India, his kite and camera recorded the event without disturbing it something a plane or helicopter could not have done.
WITH THE HELP of Seattle craftsman Jim Day, Drachen put on an aerial-photography demonstration at the annual Washington State International Kite Festival at Long Beach in late August.
Day, who used to build wooden boats, volunteers to help Drachen and represents the wide spectrum of kite-lovers here. Kites are tools to him. He makes them to serve functions, specifically to launch and hold the camera rigs he builds.
Weeks before the class at the coast, he found a vacant spot on Kite Hill at Magnuson Park in Seattle and raised his gray kite, big and rectangular, like a two-dimensional refrigerator. The wind yanked it upward and Day held the line taut. Each time he let out line, the kite jumped to the next level. It sat rigidly in the sky. He made it that way so it would create a stable platform for his photographs. When it was about 70 yards high, he attached to the line a cord cradle, which held his Cannon camera. He moved the lens up or down by moving the toggle switch on a remote-control box and pressed a red button whenever he guessed something interesting was within the frame.
Day's photography kite represents just one facet of the variety of kites you'll find on the brown-grass mound at Magnuson on any windy afternoon. Stunt kiters make their hawk shapes twist, dance, somersault, plummet and rise. Kite fighters maneuver their darting diamond-shapes by letting out line, pulling and tugging as if they were fly-fishing. Other folks just hang onto gaudy store-bought kites that waft, and sink, with the wind.
Kites are not limited, though, to the hill or the shoreline. While Day was testing his camera and steady kite, Robin Ogaard and buddies were kite-surfing, near Shilshole Bay, sing parafoils to propel and pull themselves along and off the water. Down in Kent, Sam Houston, a wiry 72-year-old former supervisor for Weyerhaeuser, was making his latest kite to take to the festival at Long Beach.
He has made perhaps 100, including fine replicas of Cody and Bell kites as well as his own designs. He's not the artistic type, but he is a hard-core do-it-yourselfer. He loves making kites so much that his wife bought him his own sewing machine, and he treats it as a power tool.
"If you are out there flying a kite and looking up at it," he says, "and there are other kites in the air around you and someone walks up and asks, 'Why are you just holding onto that string?' then my advice is don't even talk to him. Because he's not going to get it."
Richard Seven is a staff writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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