Beth Gouldin
From Discourse 16

Emily Babiak. Beth Gouldin’s “Soko Flyers” exhibition at San Francisco’s Thoreau Center of Sustainability.

Art has been in my life for as long as I can remember. It existed in basic forms of imagery and objects viewed by people, admired in museums, and bought and sold in galleries. As a child, I was always drawing but would never have called myself an artist. Artists were almost mythical creatures in my eyes: men and women of museum and gallery legend. I, on the other hand, was always exploring nature and science. For me, representing the physical world through art was a way of better understanding its functions and processes. That childhood drive to experiment and explore has continued to be important in my work.

I was first exposed to using watercolor as a medium in a community college class. I needed electives to fill out my hours while working on an associate of science in chemistry. Watercolor painting had a rich history in life illustration, so it was a natural tool for someone interested in representing the physical world. I reveled in its range and nuance, its tendency for watermarking and blooming. It had a dual nature, seeming to be remarkably simple – pigment plus water – yet retaining a complexity that intrigued me. Its reputation as the most challenging of painting mediums only made it all the more appealing due to its similarity to the problem-solving demanded in my study of chemistry. I was determined to learn watercolor painting’s languages of control and automatism. Later, I learned of wabi-sabi, the Japanese concept of embracing beauty in imperfection. It is a perfect description of the aesthetic of watercolor painting.

Japanese aesthetics was the other major influence on my creative mind. My mother had a close Japanese friend with whom she bonded through homeschooling, motherhood, and as lonely wives with busy working partners. Their relationship deepened as my mother supported her friend through the birth and death of a severely handicapped child. For several years, our families’ lives were intertwined through life and death, pain and beauty. From early in the relationship, there was a constant dialogue about our separate cultures. My mother’s friend wanted her children to grow up experiencing all things American, and my family was curious to appreciate Japanese tradition. My mother became interested in Asian art and artifacts, often purchasing unmarked pieces from estate sales, craft shows, and antique stores. The two women would muse over these little treasures, her friend often scornfully stating, “This is not Japanese.” Those opinions never changed my appreciation for the objects of foreign origins that occupied a shelf in my mother’s home. Our West Texas, country-styled house became host to exotic traces of Japanese and other Asian cultures. They held a beauty that my American Midwest heritage seemed to lack.

Throughout the completion of my bachelor of arts degree in chemistry, the realization that I wanted to do art grew stronger and harder to ignore. As I moved deeper into the art realm and out of focusing on chemistry, I found myself incorporating many elements of Japanese aesthetic in my work. They presented the possibility of balance and tranquility, both of which I was desperately searching for in my personal life as well. Instead of committing to a single style or artistic mode, I discovered the answer was balance and the act of embracing contrary natures, imperfections, beauty, and form.

When I decided to pursue art as a career, I entered the master of fine arts program in watercolor under Millie Giles at the University of North Texas. After two years, I began my final creative project, culminating in an exhibition of my master’s thesis work. It was also accompanied by an extended artist’s statement paper. The watercolor program had historically teetered on the proverbial knife-edge from the rest of the university and was under immense pressure for “avant garde” work. My show needed to be bigger, more spectacular, and unforgettable – unlike anything the university had ever seen. Together, Millie and I began contemplating the possibility of merging kites and fine art into my master’s thesis exhibition.

Kites, like sculpture, could be art objects in and of themselves. Kites also fit well into my never-ending search for balance in art and life. I was surprised to discover balance to be more important than overall symmetry in the function of a kite. Form, surface area, materials, wind strength: all had to be in equilibrium for a successful flight.

Traditionally, the kite has functioned as a mode of communication, an expression of personal liberty, recreation, competition, and self-expansion. Scientifically, they have been connected with the understanding of electricity, the study of wind currents, and the invention of the airplane. Throughout the ages, kitefliers have figuratively transcended their land-locked beings and soared into the air, ever reaching for heights yet unexplored. This is not unlike the desired function of art and its creative process.

During some early research on kites as art, I came across Anna Rubin and a quote from Gilbert Lescault. He wrote in Ecrites timides sur le visible, “Light and frail as it is, the kite hovers at the opposite end of the spectrum from our traditional museums. It hangs on the empty air, not on a picture rail…to build a kite is to put art beyond the reach of stuffiness and heavy discourse…for the kite is the negation of the academic attitudes of a complacent culture. A kite offers no criticism. It just escapes. It is somewhere else entirely.” (Translated from French, 1979) THAT was exactly what I was looking to express with my MFA exhibition. I wanted something more than a painting on a rail, and God knows how I longed to rise beyond the “stuffy discourse” of academia in art. It was my ticket to freedom.

Art kites allowed me to explore form, function, and the hybridization of traditional watercolor painting on a non-traditional, three-dimensional surface, displayed off the walls and in flight. Rubin’s delicate art kites presented a powerful reminder to pursue simplicity, balance, and natural materials. I decided to use Japanese kite forms as the “carriers” for my paintings. It was an artistically relevant choice considering the history of Japanese kite-decorating included techniques that were forerunners to traditional watercolor painting. As I began my research and practice of kitemaking, I didn’t understand how deep the rabbit hole went. I tumbled in headlong.

It became necessary for me to formally address the role that Japanese culture and philosophy had played in my development for the extended artist’s statement paper. It was not as crude as mimicry or as easy as appropriation; rather, it was evidence of my respect and admiration for a culture and the oblique and inadvertent role it played in my early life. But I really needed contemporary experiences to serve as evidence for my paper. A trip to Japan in the summer of 2009 enabled me to create a sustainable dialogue between this Western artist and the Eastern principles, ideas, and imagery. I joined a cultural exchange program for two weeks, traveling to over 13 different cities.

Not only was it an opportunity to travel and do art abroad, but I could also get academic credit by using it as research for my final year of the MFA program. I planned to visit multiple museums and cultural centers that were involved in the many Japanese kite festivals throughout the year.

Executing these well-laid plans proved more challenging than I anticipated. The timing for the trip managed to exclude every major kite festival held that year. Additionally, younger generations of Japanese showed little interest in preserving this particular cultural element, and there were very few individuals making kites in a contemporary context. Kite flying and making seemed limited to festivals or specific kite-holiday type events. My Japanese peers were bewildered at my interest in going to said events and dismissed i t for more “interesting” things to show me. Traditional kitemaking in Japan was indeed losing ground. However, when I did find someone willing to talk kites, they were incredibly enthusiastic and excited at the prospect of this Westerner showing interest! I learned not only about the construction and decorating styles, but also about the significance of the imagery itself.

I talked a friend into hunting down the TAKO-NO-HAKUBUTSUKAN, or Tokyo Kite Museum in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Japan. It is one of the most intense, sensory- overloading museums I have ever visited! It is a tiny museum that boasts over 3,000 kites and is the head office of the Japanese Kite Association. Founded by Shingo Modegi, the former owner of the restaurant above which the museum is located, it is primarily his private collection of kites. I felt as though I had won the lottery! Even though I was the only Western visitor – actually, I was the ONLY visitor at that time – they had some English in the description tags and translated books. I picked up an amazing book in English titled The Making of Japanese Kites by Masaaki Modegi (Shingo Modegi’s son and now the owner of the Tokyo Kite Museum). The Drachen Foundation has since made this book available in the US.

I returned to the States and started cranking out rough versions of the kites that I had seen. My process would prove to be quite crude compared to the incredible craftsmanship of the Japanese kites that I saw at the museum. Many of my kites refused to fly or met untimely ends in dramatic crashes, thanks to my inexperience as a flier. I became obsessed with the Edo Dako for their extreme stability, large surface areas and simple form. I learned of the Shirone Kite Battles in Niigata Prefecture where they fly giant Edo kites, measuring over 130 square feet, across the river Nakanokuchi and have “battles.” I was determined to see one and began planning for a return to Japan in the summer of 2010.

Before that could happen, I had to finish my master of fine arts exhibition and creative project. I designed nine kites – four traditional Japanese forms and five original forms – using traditional materials of bamboo, paper, and starch paste. I painted them with watercolor and gouache and installed them in a beautiful atrium of the art building on campus. I derived the imagery from my 2009 visit to Japan and included strongly recognizable silhouettes of traditional Japanese buildings, trees, and other objects. Those images served as starting points for a narrative related to the experience. This continued the East/West dialogue I had started in 2009. The kites were installed vertically in the three-story atrium, complete with tails and flying lines. The exhibition was a great success, and I graduated with a sigh of relief.

I returned to Japan in the summer of 2010 to continue feeding my growing obsession with Japanese kites. I went with Millie Giles, my professor and mentor, that time. Again, we missed the giant kite festivals due to poor timing, but were able to visit one of the other well-known kite museums, Shirone Odako to Rekishinoyakata, in Niigata, Japan, which has many of the Shirone giant kites, such as those that participate in the battles. I had a much more intimate experience at the museum. It was a fair trade.

The museum had extensive exhibits of kites from Japan and around the world. (Years later, I would meet the makers of those kites in the States.) It also had a wind tunnel and a 3D English-dubbed movie of the Shirone kite battles. I was fortunate to see many examples of the large-scale Edo Dako that measured some 40 feet on one side and required more than 20 men to fly. Those large kites were made specifically for the museum rather than the battlefield, as the ones flown in the festival are often completely destroyed in the process. The festival is quite the community event, in fact.

Traditionally, each community on both sides of the river works all year to hand-make the rope used to fly the kite and slowly puts together a selection of kites for the battle. During the festival, the kites are flown from opposite banks and are intentionally tangled up in the air. They are then downed into the river where a giant game of tug-o-war commences with the flying ropes. Eventually, one of the ropes breaks, and the side with the longest bit left wins! They get to take home the loser’s broken portion of the kite rope. It is incorporated into the length of the flying rope, which they begin again on for the next year.

Community building through kitemaking exists in many cultures that have a strong kite history. It was an unexpected discovery for me that this community-building element is still alive and well; one just has to know where to look. My first personal experience of this was during my research for my MFA project in 2010 when I attended a kitemaking conference in Washington state. (I was living in Texas at the time.) One might expect that the sudden involvement of a novice outsider would have been resisted or resented, but that is the opposite of what I experienced. The group of lovely folks that participate yearly in the Fort Worden Kitemaker’s Conference in Port Townsend, WA are from all around the world and all walks of life. They opened their arms to me and shared their knowledge with enthusiasm. I was hooked. It was enriching, encouraging, and challenging to delve into other materials and techniques for kitemaking.

Beth Gouldin. TOP: Kites hang from every available surface at the Tokyo Kite Museum. BOTTOM: Tiny kite with flying reel; viewed through a hand lens at the Tokyo Kite Museum.

Beth Gouldin. Artist Beth Gouldin’s “Somewhere Else Entirely” MFA exhibition. Viewed up through the kites from the ground level, top, and from the third level, bottom, at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.

Beth Gouldin. Artist Beth Gouldin’s “Somewhere Else Entirely” MFA exhibition. Viewed up through the kites from the ground level, top, and from the third level, bottom, at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.

Beth Gouldin. Manu tukutuku kite kits to be assembled at the Matariki Kite Festival in Auckland, New Zealand. Finished kite inset.

Beth Gouldin. Manu aute “Bird Man kite” at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

I also witnessed community-oriented kite building in New Zealand in 2013. I attended the Matariki Kite Festival in Auckland. They had an entire building devoted to teaching traditional Maori manu tukutuku kitemaking! The materials used were very different than those used for Japanese kitemaking. Native flax, reed, and hemp were the basis for those particular kites, which have a triangular shape. They are often decorated with feathers or tufts from grasses. I didn’t get a chance to fly my kite, as the wind was utterly uncooperative that day, but I met many fine folks from Australia, New Zealand, and England, and even other Americans! Another impressive kite I had a chance to view at the Auckland War Museum was the historical “Bird Man kite,” which has a wingspan of over six feet.

My most recent experience was closer to home, here in San Francisco, as the community came together to celebrate kites and art. Working in conjunction with an exhibition of Tyrus Wong’s paintings and kites at the Disney Family Museum, and also with the Presidio Kite Festival, I held a solo exhibition of eight painted kites at the Thoreau Center of Sustainability in the Presidio. The eight kites were Japanese Tsugaru, Rokkaku, and Kerori forms. The imagery for that series was designed with the community in mind. I focused on both the efforts made in San Francisco for the preservation of local wildlife and the city’s rich, deep sense of community. It was an expression of my personal exploration of the neighborhoods and communities of San Francisco during my first two years in the city.

Moving from Texas, which is densely populated with people and vehicles, to San Francisco, which is densely populated with people and wildlife, was quite a transition for me. As I explored neighborhood by neighborhood, the abundance of birds that flourished within this raging metropolis astounded me. The kites represented both geographical locations and particular bird species. Most functioned as a mnemonic tag for the stories of those experiences – anecdotes that could be passed on in a narrative tradition with the kites. I assigned the bird species to different neighborhoods or parks within San Francisco. A visit to those places might have won you an encounter with any given species of bird, but those specific ones had become particularly iconic to me. They seemed a natural subject matter for kites: while man had certainly accomplished flight, rarely is it as elegant and effortless as that of birds. The kites celebrated a captured moment – still or in flight.

The imagery of my kites varies quite a bit from my studio paintings – I simplify both the imagery and the painting style. The challenges of distance and materials require different design principles than a studio painting that would go on a wall. I work in series – in studio and on the kites – exploring and playing with imagery and ideas until either I’ve exhausted them or grown bored and moved on. There are paintings that just blossom exactly as they were in my mind, and then there are those that take a beating to produce. I find that, especially with the stories behind the kites, I’m less likely to give up on them as I may a painting that just isn’t working out. There’s the experience to be shared of the story, the painting, and then, inevitably, the inspiration to go out and FLY.

The materials I use are all-natural and as close to traditional Japanese kitemaking materials as I can access. The sails are of masa paper, the spars of bamboo, the binding element of rice paste glue (nori paste), and cotton string. In contrast to traditional kitemaking, I construct sails specifically as the carrier for an image, rather than being strictly functional for flight. Masa paper is a tough, machine- made Japanese paper designed for printmaking, marbling, and sumi. It is lightly sized on one side, so it is ideal for careful painting. While I opt for transparent watercolor exclusively in my studio paintings, I’ll often use gouache for kites. Gouache is an opaque watercolor that tends to be heavily pigmented. I prefer it for painting the kites because it has more even coverage and it uses less water, so doesn’t cause as much warping. It can be problematic if the layers of gouache become so thick that they either crackle or block light transmittance through the kite, but with controlled layers, even back illumination causes the colors to glow brightly. I use bamboo, nori paste, and cotton string to build the framework of the kite after the painting has been completed. One of the most agonizing moments is putting holes through the painting to run the bridle lines to the frame.

The scale of the kites varies, but most are at least three feet on one side. I love both big kites and big paintings. My largest kite to date was painted for the MFA exhibition: an Edo kite that was 18 feet tall and 12 feet wide. It took over a year to paint and I used probably a thousand dollars worth of materials (though I don’t like to think about that part)! It was so large that it couldn’t be assembled before installation. It had to be brought into the space, spread out on the floor, and put together the night before. It brought the complete project up to almost 40 installation hours. Storage after the fact becomes problematic with kites of that size. Most are disassembled and rolled for safe- keeping, but the recent ones decorate the walls of my home.

In the end, the kites became art-objects. None of the fully painted kites have been flown. Successful flying relies heavily on trial and error and making adjustments to each individual kite for every flight. Such experimentation would damage the kites. For the Thoreau Center exhibition, which coincided with the Presidio Kite Festival, I created three additional kites with the same designs painted in ink that I flew during the festival. They looked no worse for wear for the most part, crumpled but whole. That’s both the beauty and frustration of paper kites: they are simple, functional, and beautiful, but are very fragile and often don’t survive too many flights (especially if the landing is a little rough). For the larger kites, the scale creates difficulty. More extensive safety equipment should be used due to the extreme force they exert while in flight. Each kite, however, is designed to stay within the physical bounds of flight capability (surface area, weight, balance, and lift) and has been flight-tested on a smaller scale.

Emily Babiak

“The Mission – Pigeons”

Typically, my view of these particular birds is far less romanticized and involves dodging and ducking as I bike through a flock of them. They can be found in every part of the city and are generally considered vermin. One day, I experienced a surreal moment while working my way through the chaos of the notorious 16th and Mission BART station. I was aggravated at having to navigate around the many homeless who sit outside of the station and dodge the pigeons simultaneously. Suddenly, the hauntingly beautiful song “Feed the Birds” from Disney’s “Mary Poppins” came into my mind. I was so struck by my own self-absorbed tendency to brush past and ignore the street people, like so many pigeons, as if they were merely obstacles to avoid in my daily life. This painting is a reminder to care about my community.

Emily Babiak

“The Castro – Anna’s Hummingbird”

This is my resident male Anna’s Hummingbird. He and several females frequent my hummingbird feeder and taunt my cat through my screen door. One day, as I was refilling the feeder, I had left the screen open on the door. I turned from the sink to see him hovering just outside of my door, eye-level, watching me fill the feeder. He zipped back and forth a few times, eyeing me all the while and impatiently chirping that I hurry up and finish with that feeder!

Emily Babiak

“The Presidio – Great Blue Heron”
The Great Blue Heron is the largest of the native herons, standing an impressive 4.5 feet tall. They are found near both fresh and salt-water sources. They seem to embody patience, their very presence evoking a Zen state despite passing tourists, bicyclists, and kids. Time expands and slows as you watch them hunting, slowly walking through the water or flying gracefully overhead.

Emily Babiak

“Fisherman’s Wharf – Common Gull”

“Finding Nemo” has forever embedded their characterization of seagulls into my mind. Anytime I come across these birds, my brain changes their call to “MINE! MINE!” They are particularly aggressive and fearless near Fisherman’s Wharf where tourists unknowingly, or knowingly, encourage their marauding behavior. The only time I really can enjoy their presence is during a ferry ride across the bay. It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics of flight in motion at eye-level as they coast along the wind currents created by the boat. Often, they will display stunning aerobatic feats if you toss a cracker to them in the air.

Emily Babiak

“Mission Bay – Brown Pelican”

Brown Pelicans are some of the oddest birds I’ve ever seen. They are dumpy, ugly, and awkward when grounded and astoundingly elegant and agile in the air. Their hunting technique is a blend of kamikaze diving and pinpoint accuracy. The force of their dive stuns the fish, as deep as six feet underwater, so they can scoop it up! For several decades, they were on the Federally Endangered Species List but have had a dramatic comeback. Next time you are near the bay, watch for these graceful fliers skimming above the water, their wing-tips inches away from the waves.

Emily Babiak

“Coit Tower – Red-Masked Conure”

Before my first visit to San Francisco I watched the indie film “The Parrots of Telegraph Hill.” I was then determined to find them, and we spent several hours tracking them down before discovering a small flock in the neighborhood below Coit Tower. Since moving here, I see or hear them regularly, shrilly calling to each other while they fly over our house. Since the film, they have spread into multiple areas around San Francisco. Their success is, in part, due to the protection and efforts of the California Parrot Project.

Emily Babiak

“Financial District – Peregrine Falcon”

Amazingly enough, there are nesting Peregrine falcons in the Financial District and SOMA (South of Market)! They have adopted the skyscrapers as their cliffs and made themselves quite at home. I had a unique opportunity to study this particular bird firsthand at West Coast Falconry in Marysville, CA. They are a fantastic organization for anyone interested in falconry and offer classes and hands-on experiences. During the introductory class, we had the chance to fly Harris hawks to the glove and then get up close with Peregrine Falcons and Merlins as well.

Emily Babiak

“Golden Gate Park – Raven”

Ravens are incredibly intelligent, mysterious birds. They’ve been known to use tools, teach each other skills, and interact logically with their environment. One day in Golden Gate Park, I heard the sound of dropping water, though no water was nearby. Perplexed, I struggled to locate the source of the sound and discovered a very large raven in a nearby tree. As I watched him, he opened his mouth and out came this delicate yet clearly audible “ker-plunk!” They are becoming more common in urban areas, as they are one of the few bird species that hasn’t been negatively impacted by the expansion of the human environment.

The Rokkaku kite, or Rok, is my go-to kite for an easy build and enjoyable fly. I recently taught an adult kitemaking class with that kite for the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. During my 2010 Japan trip at the Shirone Odako to Rekishinoyakata (otherwise known as the Shirone Giant Kite Museum) in Niigata Prefecture, I was allowed to fly a huge Rok made with half- round and full-round bamboo that was almost seven feet tall. It was the first time I’d flown anything that large, and I was mesmerized during the launch as it shot effortlessly straight up into the air. Those specific Roks are designed so the spine can be removed and the kite rolled for storage. They are beautifully hand-painted and made with double-thick paper so they last for years.

When I began my journey into kitemaking, I had no idea it would develop into the kind of obsession it has. I was surprised in the beginning when my academic advisors didn’t laugh in my face at the suggestion of kites, and I’m still surprised at the positive responses I get from folks who see them. I have yet to come across someone who doesn’t seem intrigued (at the very least) at the idea of kites as art. Though, maybe those are just tolerant smiles. And I’m grateful for the tolerance from my husband as the number of kites in our home, both on the walls and off, keeps growing.

As a flier, it is a practice in humility to offer the kite to the wind, praying silently that I’ve made all the appropriate adjustments so it doesn’t crash! As a maker, I’ve progressed so far from where I started, but there’s still much to learn about the craftsmanship of making kites. In the end, I’m astounded that the humble kite, “light and frail as it is,” (Lescault) has the power to knit communities together, inspire, entertain, and ultimately lift and express the human spirit. ◆