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At the 'U,' kites soar to new cultural heights

Courtesy of Matthew Shlian

By Jeff Waraniak, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 26, 2011

The kite master has an air of stardom about him. He approaches the track field in a pair of mirrored sunglasses and nods to some photographers beneath a tent marked “Kite Fly-A-Thon.” On the grass he lays a cardboard box heavily stickered with the word “fragile” and pulls out a red paper dragonfly kite with spinning green eyes.

“Look at that,” someone whispers. “Isn’t that beautiful?”

The master prepares his handmade kite in near silence. It’s as if everyone in the crowd is starstruck; they don’t know what to say.

In the bleachers, several feet from the crowd, two people are sitting and chatting. The master spots them, peers over the crowd and waves.

“Hey Master Ha,” they shout, waving back.

The crowd turns to see who is on waving terms with the master. The two celebs-by-association are University artists Anne Mondro and Matthew Shlian — two of Chinese kite master Ha Yiqi’s most recent students.

***

For three weeks in the summer, Anne Mondro, an associate professor at the School of Art & Design, and Matthew Shlian, a lecturer in the School of Art & Design, apprenticed with Master Ha, a fourth-generation kite master in Beijing whose creations were featured in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Under the guidance of the master, Mondro and Shlian learned the basics of traditional Chinese kite making, taking time and care to follow the master’s instructions precisely. Mondro, having worked with metal and other sculpture materials in the past, expected kite making to come more quickly to her than it did.

“None of my skills from my craft background transferred over,” Mondro said. “It was a lot more difficult than I expected.”

Even with his background in paper engineering, Shlian too found the kite making process to be surprisingly challenging. He quickly discovered that Chinese kite building required a different kind of expertise.

“It was a lot more detail-oriented,” Shlian said. “It required more precision than we’re used to in the West.”

Despite the challenges kite making presented, the professors agreed that their work did not go unrewarded.

“We took a lot away from the experience,” Mondro said. “Not just a deep appreciation for the craft, but for the traditional artwork of China, too.”

The two artists were originally sent to China as part of a project in collaboration with the University’s Center for Chinese Studies, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. As part of the anniversary celebration, the Center organized several kite-related events in late September that included a Kite-Fly-A-Thon, a Sunday afternoon kite festival and a series of kite making workshops.

LSA freshman Rachel Goldberg participated in one of the workshops as a member of the University’s Living Arts learning community. Much like Mondro and Shlian, who facilitated her workshop, Goldberg was surprised by the amount of effort that was required to construct a flyable kite.

“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Goldberg said. “But the point isn’t to build a kite and leave it sitting around. The whole point is to fly it.”

Goldberg and others flew their kites high above the central valley in Nichols Arboretum. At any time, at least one kite, small or large, colorful or not, could be seen floating in the sky.

In addition to kite building, the kite festival this past Sunday included a Chinese lion dance, a Chinese ribbon dancing ceremony and kite flying competitions for both University students and members of the Ann Arbor community.

Marc Bradshaw and his son Parker, both Ann Arbor residents, entered the competition with a pair of kites constructed from Dupont Tyvek housewrap. Bradshaw said he’d been constructing kites since he was a boy, and that he was now teaching his son the craft.

“I fell in love with flying things when I was younger,” Bradshaw said. “Now I’m just passing that on.”

***

At the Kite-Fly-A-Thon, Master Ha’s red dragonfly kite is resting in the grass. The crowd isn’t as starstruck as it was upon his arrival. There are other kite flyers running around the field now, young and old.

A small Chinese girl picks up the dragonfly kite and a parent tells her to put it down, but she keeps it in her hand. Master Ha holds the line on the other end, smiling at the little girl. He points toward the sky.

“On the count of three?” he asks in Chinese. They count to three and the kite lifts into the air.

The little girl smiles, and so does the master. Knowledge of Chinese isn’t required to understand their smiles.