Chris Yuengling-Niles
From Discourse 20

Chris Yuengling-Niles. Artist Tom Van Sant displays the launcher for his “Jacob’s Ladder,” a structure with hundreds of segments that can reach a quarter mile into the sky.


In 2005 Scott Skinner and I had the good fortune to be a part of a washi paper tour of Japan, organized by the handmade paper goddess Hiromi Katayama. We traveled from Osaka to Kochi visiting traditional handmade paper makers and meeting the families involved.

Among the people that we met on that trip was American paper artist Christine Yuengling- Niles. One of the most creative individuals in the universe, she is an artist with incredible credentials who lives in Los Angeles. After ten days of traveling together on the Japanese paper roads, it was clear to us that we should not only savor our new knowledge of handmade Japanese paper, but also NEVER lose sight of Christine.

Since that tour, Chris has been one of the Drachen family. We have invited her to participate in various projects all over the world, collaborating with her creative eye, her personal humor and wit, her ability to dive right in and work on a project (not just pushing it along, but contributing MORE to it), and her ability to work with very little definition.

Of all of us who know Tom Van Sant, there was no better person to work with him in the archival documentation of his kite work. Chris shares her experience in this charmingly journalistic account of her interactions with Tom.

Chris Yuengling-Niles. A cache of Tom’s drawings showing designs for kites and decorations. 

Chris Yuengling-Niles. One of several birds that grace Tom’s workshop and studio. 


The day before the first Otis Kite Festival in Los Angeles, the invited kite artists meet at Tom Van Sant’s studio and home. Tom pulls out sketches he had done for kite designs, as well as his “Jacob’s Ladder” launcher. “Jacob’s Ladder” is a structure with hundreds of segments that when launched can reach a quarter mile into the sky. This all prompts enthusiastic discussions of kites, kitemakers, and innovations that Tom utilized, such as fiberglass tubes and nylon fabric, new materials that enabled many participants in the festival to make the kites they were to fly the following day.

On festival day, Tom’s “Centipede” kite is brought to the beach. Everyone pitches in and applauds as the 35-year-old kite lifts. Strong winds bending banners in the sand are too much for the fragile sails, and despite rapid triage and spot mending it is packed up and returned to Tom’s studio. Other kites fly high, and thousands of children add their own creations to the mix of aerial art.


When next I visit Tom, he is quietly mending the delicate kites in his studio. I have come on behalf of the Drachen Foundation to assemble slides and acquire digital images of the many sketches that document his airborne structures built in the mid-’70s. As we go through the portfolio of images and binders of slides, Tom reminisces.

While looking at slides that have been tucked away for many years, Tom notices a number of familiar faces. A slide of a figure being lifted off the ground prompts a smile and the comment that she was “ready for anything.”

With pride, he shows me a letter from the British Kite Flying Association that published the book Kites: A Practical Handbook written by Ron Moulton and illustrated by Pat Lloyd. In part the note reads, “The book includes pics and data on your inspiring designs we saw during the memorable visit to Europe. That was really the beginning for all of us in the appreciation of ripstop nylon and glass fibre spars and the ICA Exhibition was the most educational display we have ever seen. Thanks and keep flying. Ron.”


In 1989, Tom decided to form the first real picture of the earth as it appeared from space. He purchased a computer the size of a refrigerator for $200,000. Using his contacts at NASA, U.S. Geological Survey, National Geographic, and others, he gained access to satellite images. Following months of software development, they created a digital photographic composition program that would stitch together hundreds of mosaics free of clouds to create a totally unobscured image of planet earth. On April 15, 1990, the image was complete. For a time the room that I now sit in with Tom was filled with desks and a cadre of young workers manning phones to disseminate the image at no cost. It has been said to be the most reproduced image in the world.

For the next decade, Tom continued work on the Geosphere Project. He conformed the map to a 6’ 6” globe. Ultimately the Geosphere was equipped with an interior projection system that could study weather and migration patterns. A network of seven “Earth Situation Room” installations were placed around the world.


Stephen Niles. A whimsical, mysterious sketch of Tom’s “Jacob’s Ladder” in action. 

Chris Yuengling-Niles. Tom’s studio/home for over three decades. Kites, drawing benches, and the “Geosphere” take pride of place. 

After graduating from high school, a young Tom decided to travel. He took a job on a freight ship, assisting in caring for the cargo: pregnant cows. The cows spent their days on deck in sheds to shield them from the summer sun. The days were long and hot. During a storm at sea, in the midst of heaving decks and lashing rain, Tom assisted in the birth of a calf.

As a young man, he continued to travel as a correspondent to various locations. In Jordan, a trip through the desert at night produced a charming line drawing of a belly dancer.


Once a week, Tom now hosts a life drawing workshop in his studio. It is a loose collection of interested participants. Among the regulars is a cheerful senior former ballerina and an earthy woman interested in all things natural. My first night we use one of the sculptures found in the studio as a model. An owl poised, alert with deep eyes. Tom joins us and as he walks about encourages us to be expressive rather than worrying about making a realistic rendering of the model. His own drawing is full of energy and color.

On the table Tom has piled a stack of drawings of a cartoon dragon. He had drawn these during his son’s childhood – whimsical messages saying hello and letting him know what was happening that day. He is thinking of making them into a book.

I ask him about the owl sculptures scattered about the studio. He says he has raised several owls. He acquired a pair of young owls and put them in a space prepared for them. At first they kept as far away as possible from him, but as they became familiar to him they slowly moved closer on the perch stretched across their room. In time, Tom was able to cup their heads and gently scratch behind their ears as they leaned into his hand. Ultimately he freed them from the house into the woods outside his home.

Lady is his companion, a dog of pleasant disposition who wanders in and out hoping for a friendly pat or scratch behind the ears or across the belly. At last, sitting there is a semi-feral cat, white with orange spots, who in the midst of moving chaos is snoozing on a chair and politely submitting to strangers’ attentions.

Tom was fascinated by the cargo culture. He has in his workshop an idol/icon made by South Pacific natives. During WWII, Japanese cargo ships would fly overhead and drop supplies for soldiers. Natives who had never seen airplanes before mistook them for beneficial spirits. They created images to invoke their return along with their perceived largesse.


At the next Otis Kite Festival, the centipede is brought back to the beach and flown to cheers. (See a video clip on the Drachen Foundation YouTube channel at:

Tom Van Sant is a living national treasure, integrating the sciences, arts, and humanities within our ever-changing world.

More can be learned about Tom and his projects at his website: