I must say, though not known for its artistic side, my school, Texas A&M University, does get some pretty good traveling exhibits… 

Once, I was completing my odious math homework in the “Flag Room” of Texas A&M’s* Memorial Student Center.  Sighing after completing a problem, I raised my head and, seeking a distraction, I turned my gaze toward the windows that looked into the J. Wayne Stark Galleries.  Contrary to the sight I had come to expect—pristine walls and shining floors—the gallery appeared almost ransacked.  Boxes and bits of packing were scattered around the ordinarily spotless space.  There were only a few artifacts on the walls, and it was hard to tell what those objects were.  I could only discern bright colors, and if I had to hazard a guess, I would have said they were artistically shaped and decorated paper.  Whatever they were, it was rather diverting to see the normally serene galleries in such a state of confusion.

When I entered the gallery after its transformation was complete, I still wasn’t sure exactly what this exhibit was.  Upon closer examination, the art on the introductory walls contained bit of what might be paper, to be sure, but perhaps it was merely fabric aged to a papery consistency.  In fact, some of the pieces were definitely slick, modern fabric.  They were formed into flat shapes and painted with “Asian” pictures (for lack of a better term).  Some had streamers hanging from their ends.  Curiouser and curiouser!

I turned to the exhibit’s “title card.”  “Art on a String” it said, organized by Blair-Murrah Exhibitions, Sibley, Missouri, USA.  Very well, the pieces were hanging from hooks on strings, but what were they?  Surely there was some rationale behind it?  Very much intrigued, I turned the placard next to it, which looked to contain a lengthy explanation.  It was titled: “The Origin of the Kite.”

“Oh,” said I, nearly out loud.  “Kites!”

From there I commenced a rather interesting reading on the history of kites: who first invented them (allegedly China), what parts of the world ancient kites are found in (Egypt, for example), what they were used for (religious ceremonies, primarily), and where our modern kite comes from (from the curved Malaysian design).

I figured I’d better write some of this down, so I headed for the nearest bench to dig something out of my backpack.  As I sat down, I sensed something above me…and oh!  There was a caterpillar hanging from the ceiling!  Well, a caterpillar kite.  It was made of round pieces of fabric, ladybug red with black dots in the center of each, all strung together to create a body.  I have no idea how such a contraption would fly, but I’d be delighted to see it in the sky.  There were about thirty or so other kites of various antiquity strung on the walls or suspended from the ceiling.

Though, I must admit I have come to the conclusion that I am not too crazy about Japanese art, at least as it is manifested on the faces of kites.  They contain too many (what I would consider to be) grotesque faces, though perhaps their expressions are culturally significant.  The outlines of other objects depicted (birds, flowers, rolling waves) are too bold and the colors too garish for my tastes…but then, these kites would show up well against a pale blue atmosphere.

Following this train of thought, I came to discover through this exhibit that there is an awful lot of engineering that goes into the making of kites.  I read of so-called “fighter kites,” extremely delicate kites—too slight for vigorous U.S. winds, I read—that are designed to cut their opponent’s string.  On the wall next to this corner of the exhibit was a crude kite of dark green leaves stitched together, with a string and hook attached to the end as a tail.  Tribesmen—Malaysian again, I think I remember—would send these to bob above the water, until an angry fish jumped out and caught himself on the hook.  Quite a clever idea indeed, I must say.

Of course, not all of the kites were so practical.  One kite I caught myself studying—in fact, I might not have known it was intended to be a kite if I hadn’t been told—was simply a bird.  That’s really the best way to describe it.  It was a hawk with its wings spread maybe more three feet.   But this wasn’t just a painted image: it was 3D.   its brown plumage was actually fluffy feathers, individually affixed to whatever the body of the kite was made of.  The yellow beak was curved and its point was sharp.  What I wouldn’t give to see this fowl fly…

…Along with the adorable little dark blue bug-kite, maybe eight inches long and eight wide, with white and pale blue wings, accented in gold, and with a curling seal on its body.  I can imagine it buzzing about on a draft like a real beetle…

…Though I have a bit of trouble figuring out how the willow tree kite would remain airborne.  No matter, it was a pleasure to look at: the curls of the willow tree highlighted by a soft pink background, and the branches escaping the painted fabric and turning into streamers…

…and then my serenity was gone, as I happened to glance up, straight into the eyes of the dragon kite, a massive creature at least four feet long.  The panels of fabric were again arranged so as to make a 3D creature, with turquoise blue scales, with bright yellow and parrot green accents.  True to Asian ideals, the dragon had a bright red tongue sticking out like a dog, a bright red beard that reminds me of a goat, and one of those thin mustaches—for lack of a better descriptive term—that looks like it belongs to a catfish.  But it was still a dragon: the staring eyes were wide and it had rows of sharp teeth (yes, the artist bothered to give the beast bright white teeth!).  I still have trouble imagining how such a beast would float on any air, but wouldn’t it be a fearsome sight!

But aye!  There’s the rub.  I so want to see this kites fly, all these kites fly, but I can’t; that is not the nature of the exhibit.  Perhaps I’m being melodramatic, but it seems kind of like caging an exotic bird or pinning a detailed butterfly.  After all, the song goes “Let’s go fly a kite,” not “let’s go look at a kite in a museum.”

But then, why do you pin butterflies?  So you can better appreciate the meticulousness of their beauty.  If a kite is flying “up to the highest height,” then all you can see are bright blocks of color (thus, I surmise, originate the rather boring designs on our run-of-the-mill American kites).  Here, strung on the wall, you can study every delicate flick of the paintbrush on the kite-canvases.  It’s a pleasure to see the details…

…but I’ve still got an itch in my fingers.  I want to go fly a kite…

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