The Joy of Kites Kite flyers and kite lovers gather near the Washington Monument for the annual Smithsonian Kite Festival, showing off handmade kites and competing for prizes. Kitemaker Jon Burkhardt, head judge of the festival, talks about his craft.
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The Joy of Kites

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The Joy of Kites

The Joy of Kites

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This weekend in Washington the cherry trees are blooming, and yesterday took flight for the 42nd Annual Smithsonian Kite Festival.

(Soundbite of kite flapping in wind)

HANSEN: Jon Burkhardt, a master kite maker from Potomac, Maryland, was one of the judges.

Mr. JON BURKHARDT (Master Kite Maker; Judge, Smithsonian Kite Festival): Philip Jones, chairman mile, grand prize winner, 2008.

HANSEN: What do you look for?

Mr. BURKHARDT: We're generally looking for a wow factor. But besides that, more precisely, kites are generally judged on four factors. On the ground we judge them on craftsmanship - is it put together well? And we judge them on structural design. And when a kite is in the air we judge it on flight performance - is it up in the air, is it stable, is it very controllable?

And we also judge on visual appeal. Does it look good, does it really say something, can you see the design, is it pleasing to you? So that's the general comprehensive judging.

HANSEN: Jon Burkhardt has been making kites for almost 30 years. His inspiration was an Indiana farmer who took up the hobby at the age of 89, sewed about a dozen kites a week and told Burkhardt that he had found the secret to life. Burkhardt soon became a respected member of the kite making community.

His workshop is in his modern, spacious home surrounded by tall trees north of D.C. There is a kite caught in one of those trees. Burkhardt's first piece of advice: never climb a tree to retrieve a kite. Besides, there are many more where that one came from.

This way down the stairs. Wow. Look at this room. I'm not going to do justice to do it so I think you should give folks listening just a visual taste of what is surrounding us right now.

Mr. BURKHARDT: Well, I would have to say that what we're really looking at is we're looking at a lot of color. There is color all over the place.

HANSEN: A collage of purple, red, yellow and green kites cover the glass patio doors, creating a stained glass effect when the sun shines in. Near Burkhardt's sewing machine and drafting table, a bookcase displays blue, red and yellow ribbons, as well as a chorus line of trophies and prize-winning kites.

Tell us about one of your championships.

Mr. BURKHARDT: Oh, one of my championships. The American Kite Flyers Association did a convention in Nashville and I got the top prize for homemade kite in Nashville and I got a gold record for it.

HANSEN: Gold record?

Mr. BURKHARDT: A gold record for the kite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Is the kite in the room?

Mr. BURKHARDT: The kite is rolled up but we can unroll it and show it to you.

HANSEN: Would you?


HANSEN: I'd like to see a champion kite.

(Soundbite of unraveling material)

HANSEN: How beautiful. Is that a goddess? The moon goddess.

Mr. BURKHARDT: This is the goddess of art, I believe, from Alphonse Mucha, which is about 1897. This kite is a six-sided Japanese-style. It's actually a fighting kite. And the name of the kite is Row Cackoo(ph), and this kite is the official kite of the mamasans, which is the women's Row Cackoo Fighting Team in the United States.

HANSEN: Wow. You said this kite has a name?

Mr. BURKHARDT: We generally just call it the lady. And the lady has been around the world and sometimes without me. Came back from Venice with a little cigarette hole but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURKHARDT: …we've forgiven her for that and patched her up.

HANSEN: Do you loan her out for competitions or showcases?

Mr. BURKHARDT: These days mostly she's retired.

HANSEN: Jon Burkhardt makes his kites out of ripped stop nylon.

(Soundbite of ripping)

HANSEN: It's light and strong and comes in a rainbow of colors. Once the design is complete and the pattern cut, Burkhardt first sprays adhesive on each piece because the material is very slippery.

(Soundbite of spraying and sewing machine)

HANSEN: Then they are sewn together. Then just add string winders and a final but crucial element.

When is a kite complete? When you fly it for the first time?

Mr. BURKHARDT: Yes, when you fly it for the first time the kite is complete. We say that if it doesn't fly it's just wall art.

HANSEN: What are the names of some of your kites?

Mr. BURKHARDT: I give each of the kites special names because I believe that kites fly better if they have names. I have one that's called Blackfoot's Magic Gourd because it comes from Zuni Indian jewelry design done on a gourd. We have just lots of different names for the kites.

HANSEN: Why do kites fly better if they have names?

Mr. BURKHARDT: I think there's more of a personal connection. When you're flying a kite it feels like there's something alive on the end of the string and there's some that my wife thinks are like puppy dogs and there are some that are like tigers and anything in between.

HANSEN: Strikes me - is March, the end of March, the best time to fly kites?

Mr. BURKHARDT: I don't think so. In the springtime there's lost of blustery winds. And gusts are a challenge for kites and kite flyers. And it turns out that October in the United States has very smooth winds. And so we think that October is the ideal month.

HANSEN: But, of course, the kite flying is part of the cherry blossom festival in Washington.

Mr. BURKHARDT: Indeed, and it's wonderful to be out there. People will come to the cherry blossoms and they'll discover kites.

(Soundbite of kite flapping in wind)

HANSEN: After the kite competition on the Mall yesterday, Jon Burkhardt set his own kite free.

Mr. BURKHARDT: The kite that I brought to the festival is one that I made called South China Seas. It's a flat kite. It's about eight feet tall. And the colors of the kite are black and red. There's a lot of black and red in there and also some yellow and gold and some white. And the tail snakes out behind it, it flaps in the wind. We've got some long ribbons that are also there.

So, all together, we're talking about maybe 70 feet or so of the kite when it's up in the air. It's kind of a celebration in the sky.

(Soundbite of kite flapping in wind)

(Soundbite of song, "Let's Go Fly a Kite")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Go fly a kite and send it soaring, up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear, oh, let's go fly a kite.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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