a Higher Plane: Kite Man Buteo Huang
Step into Buteo Huang's
studio apartment in Sanshia, 23 km from Taipei, and you are immediately
transported to a museum. Here, Taiwan's leading kite designer is in his
element, ushering me through each room like a seasoned tour guide, never
at a loss for words, explaining the history and meaning behind each work.
Though he's done it many times over, Huang, 45, introduces his kites with
the irrepressible enthusiasm of a child. His gestures are animated and
his eyes, framed by thinly rimmed glasses, illuminate as if they too can't
hold back the source of his incredible energy: his flying creations. An
architect by training and a successful interior designer for the past
13 years, Huang quit his day job in 2002 to concentrate solely on the
chancy business of making kites.
Our tour begins at the foyer, where eight leaf-shaped kites dangle above
a man-made pond. Huang calls this installation "Vanishing Forests." The
kites symbolize trees in a forest; their spiral patterns represent the
concentric rings in the cross section of a tree trunk, visible only after
the tree is cut.
Huang hails "Vanishing Forests" as a breakthrough in the traditional usage
of a kite. Here, the kite is no longer an object of play, but a piece
of art. Says Huang: "I want to change the way people think about kites."
The purpose of a kite may be to fly, but Huang wants to elevate the kite
to the higher plane of fine art. "A kite itself is a romantic and free
image soaring across the sky. It is not just a toy. So why should it be
limited to the handicraft or children's section?" he asks.
With his unique craftsmanship and painstaking attention to detail, Huang
weaves a delicate balance between form and function. His handmade kites
are intricately designed, and by removing just a few bamboo pegs, even
the most elaborate of his kites easily comes apart. After more than three
decades, Huang's oeuvre comprises more than 2,000 creations. They include
birds, insects, warriors and gods. "What I like about kite-making is that
it permits you to do something no one else has done before," says Huang,
who possesses a number of patents for his innovative designs.
Huang said that each kite holds sentimental value for him. Some are influenced
by his heritage, like a traditional Chinese centipede with an elaborate
dragonhead measuring 270 feet long or a multi-oared canoe used by Taiwan's
Dawu aboriginals. Others such as his segue way piece into contemporary
design, a box kite entitled "The Truth about Newspapers," convey a social
message. Covered with torn pieces of varnished newspaper, it questions
bias in print journalism. Then there's Huang's masterpiece, the Nautilus,
an "air-swimming" seashell that took three prototypes and five years to
perfect. During that time, the kite-maker reveals, he would sleep with
the seashell in hopes of unlocking the secret as to how to make a kite
of that shape successfully fly.
Huang grew up in Sanshia in the 1960s, the youngest of three brothers.
When he was 10, he recalls watching one of his brothers fly a kite that
soared so high, it danced in and out of the clouds. Little Huang was captivated.
How can an object disappear into "a cotton of cloud," with one tug
of a string, he wondered. He had to find out for himself. So with incense
sticks and glossy calendar paper, he pieced together his first kite, a
traditional diamond-shaped creation. After that, he said, there was no
Life at home, however, wasn't idyllic. "I was an unhappy child," Huang
admits. "My parents and teachers could not understand why I was so interested
in kites. They would always ask why I wasn't studying. They were never
happy with me."
But Huang was in fact doing his own studying. His free time was spent
at the zoo, sketching different varieties of birds. He thought, "If birds
can fly, then if I make a kite the shape of a bird, it too will fly."
So using his amateur diagrams as blueprints, Huang created more than a
dozen kites the shape of his feathered friends. When he attempted to take
these airborne though, none would fly. Prodded by his initial defeat and
determined to see his creations take wing, the young kite-maker began
reading books on aerodynamics and kite design.
We come finally to the last exhibit of the tour -- a kite resembling the
Chinese crested tern, a large seabird easily identified by its yellow
bill. The legendary bird, once thought to be extinct, was spotted several
years ago on Matsu Island in the Taiwan Strait. Huang's kite is a life-size
and "anatomically correct" model of the crested tern, and as he boasts,
with movements mimicking the flying motions of the bird.
"A kite may be bamboo sticks and paper, but the moment it leaves the ground,
it takes on a life of its own," says Huang. "I am experiencing the same
joy as God when I see my kites in the sky."
In Latin, the word "buteo" means falcon or hawk. In Chinese, the literal
translation of Buteo is "crazy bird," which may be the perfect description
of this kite-maker, who took to the name 16 years ago. For it takes a
person with a little bit of "crazy" -- someone with serious enthusiasm
and obsessive self-determination -- to be where he is now.
Today, Huang's kites are exhibited all around the world. He is showcased
everywhere from the Science Museum in Valencia, Spain to the Winter Garden
in New York City. In June 2002, he won first prize at the International
Kite Design Competition in the Netherlands, and in September 2005 at the
same competition in Baltimore, Maryland.
Despite the recognition, Huang still feels as if he has a lot further
to go -- especially at home. More than a decade ago, he remembers calling
a modern art museum in Taipei to inquire about exhibiting his kites there.
At the mere mention of the word kite, however, they hung up on him. Much
has changed since then; these days the Sanshia kite-maker is being promoted
by his country as part of the new, forward-thinking Taiwan. It's progress,
says Huang, but not enough.
"The most difficult thing to do is change someone's thinking," says Huang,
"and I won't rest until I'm able to change what people think about kites."
He pauses. "But even then, I probably won't rest."
more information on Buteo Huang, go to http://www.buteohuang.com.
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