SoCal Connected on KCET

Santa Monica's Fluttering Kite Festival

Original Airdate June 18, 2014

Val Zavala: I'm here near the pier in Santa Monica and it's a kite festival. It’s fantastic, it's a beautiful day, and it’s another reason to love Southern California. It's organized by Otis College of Art and Design.

Rich Shelton: So every year we fly artists in from all over the United States for one day of kites.

Val Zavala: Artists don't usually think of kites as art.

Rich Shelton: Well maybe not in our culture. But in China and India I think there are a lot of people who think of kites as art.

Val Zavala: So we're just catching up.

Rich Shelton: I think so.

Val Zavala: Now the person I really want to see today is a guy named Tyrus Wong. He's an incredible Chinese artist and he's the grand daddy of kite design. He's over a 100 years old and he's supposed to be here today. But he's not here yet.

Rich Shelton: Tyrus is 102 this year. He always comes to the kite festival.

Val Zavala: Did you hear that? He always comes. And why is it so important that I see Tyrus Wong? Because ten years ago I did a story on this remarkable man and I never forgot him.

Tyrus was only a boy when his family emigrated from China. Early on his father noticed his son's talent. He had him paint on newsprint because they couldn't afford paper. Tyrus went to Otis College of Art and Design on a scholarship, although he had never heard of scholarships at the time. One of his first jobs was at a small company called Disney. It's here where his soft, dreamy backgrounds inspired by Chinese paintings, attracted the attention of the boss.

His work became the backgrounds for the classic movie, “Bambi.” He went on to have a long a successful career, drawing set backdrops, murals, greeting cards, paintings and pottery. Then in retirement he discovered a new love: Kites.

Val Zavala: Why kites?

Tyrus Wong: Oh I don’t know because Chinese is the one who invented the kites. Maybe it’s in my blood, I don’t know.

Val Zavala: For Tyrus, ordinary is not an option. This is his signature creation: An extraordinary kite 100-feet long. With a firm grip and a strong yank, it’s up. But what I remember most about Tyrus is that whatever he does, he does with pure joy. That's why I was looking forward to seeing him again after 10 years. Just one problem. We only had a couple hours before our crew had to go to another interview. So time was tight. Come on Tyrus…come on..come on…come on.

In the meantime, kite maker Ron Gibian was introducing a crowd of kids to the challenges of kite flying.

Ron Gibian: Our mission this year is to bring children from inland areas that don’t usually have access to the beach. So we have the Boys and Girls Club of America here, we have Urban Compass, we have a lot of foster care organizations that have brought kids here for a day at the beach.

Val Zavala: Those kids almost got clobbered by Otis. How often are you out kite flying?

Ron Gibian: I’m mostly making kites for people. It's a business for me as well. But I do like to get out and fly kites alone in nice places now and then. So nice to get back to why we got into this to begin with

Val Zavala: Darn it. Still no Tyrus. Kite designer Melanie Walker uses photography to distinguish her work.

Melanie Walker: They’re little miniature toys that were relics from Wrold War I when everyone was supposed to turn in their toys and they were supposed to be melted down for weapons. Some of the children chose not to do that so these are relics of that. I photographed them and manipulated the image and printed it on this fabric. They go up like an elevator and just sit.

Val Zavala: But while most people were watching the kites, I was watching the clock. Come on Tyrus. Where are you? What is it about kites that touches your heart?

George Peters: I like what it does to other people's hearts. Walking along the sand thinking about something else. They look up. It’s a very simple object, a kite in the sky. It causes people to get positive.

Val Zavala: Well Tyrus looks like we ran out of time. I guess we missed you. Darn it. But it doesn't feel like we missed him. Just take a look at those.

Every year, the Otis College of Art and Design hosts its annual family-friendly Kite Festival in Santa Monica. The festival brings in well-renowned kite designers to share their expertise and passion for kite design and construction.

The festival has featured prominent kite designers like Tyrus Wong, Melanie Walker, Jose Sainz, Bobby Stanfield, among several others.

KCET's Departures toured Wong's home for its Chinatown series, which boasted an impressive collection of kites and artifacts. He sat down with us to talk about Old Chinatown and the inspiration behind his fluttering pieces.

Wong, now in his 100s, migrated with his father from Taishan to Sacramento when he was just nine. He later developed a love for the arts and attended Otis College of Arts and Design where he earned a prestigious scholarship for his artistic skills.

In the 1930s, Wong had the opportunity to work on design backgrounds for Disney's classic film "Bambi." He used rich watercolor washes and strokes reminiscent of Chinese ink painting, as KCET's Artbound writes.

Wong moved on to Warner Brothers and worked as a motion picture illustrator for iconic films like "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Harper."

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Rich Shelton, Otis College of Art and Design
  • Gail Morgan, communications manager, Santa Clarita
  • Ron Gibian, artist/kite maker
  • Melanie Walker, kite maker

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