A “gallery in the sky” of kites will fly over LA this weekend
A single kite crosses the sky above Los Angeles State Historic Park, its hexagonal body flipping in the wind.
The park sits on the edge of Chinatown, just northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The city beats around him – the Gold Line tracks flank on one side, industrial warehouses on the other. But this stretch of land is calm and soothing, with clear blue skies and a vast green lawn cut only by a fluttering white kite line – an urban oasis à la Ellsworth Kelly.
The kite dances in the air, the embodiment of lightness. But it carries a powerful message: “Protect public lands”.
Arts organization Clockshop is testing this kite – a handmade piece by artist Audrey Chan with a bamboo stand by artist-kitemaker Stevie Choi – ahead of its second kite festival on Saturday. The event, Community and Unity People’s Kite Festival, will launch a veritable art gallery into the sky with kites of all kinds – huge diving dragons, rustling centipedes and tiny diamonds in an explosion of color. But the festive-looking scene, in which the public is invited to participate for free, is also a powerful statement meant to celebrate equitable access to public lands in Los Angeles and to advocate for its preservation.
“We must continue to protect the parks over time,” says Sue Bell Yank, executive director of Clockshop. “Once built, it’s a magnificent victory. But then we have to continue to manage the land.
Commercial development, however, is an ever-present threat to LA’s existing green spaces, Yank says, noting what she feels is the most imminent danger: a proposed gondola system, Los Angeles Aerial Rapid Transit (LA ART). Aiming to open before the Olympics in 2028, it would carry passengers between Union Station and Dodger Stadium, with gondola cabins cruising through the air to ease traffic jams on baseball game days. It would also include a stop in Chinatown, with the crossing of the gondolas the airspace above the edge of the park.
“There is a history of encroachment in historic Chinatown,” Chan says. “Highway 110 was built and cut through the neighborhood. The gondola proposal would be history repeating itself.
LA ART spokeswoman Jennifer Rivera said the gondola system would only pass through the southeastern edge of the park, and the project’s Chinatown transit stop would increase public access to the area, which is one of the objectives of the project.
“This zero-emissions rapid air travel connection will increase access to a world-class park for families without the need to drive a car,” Rivera said in an emailed statement.
Yank says the kite festival isn’t meant to be an outright ‘protest event’, but rather a celebration of the clear open space that already exists there and a way to draw attention on the problem through the prism of joy.
The festival also honors the diverse communities around the 32-acre park, the immigrant enclaves of Chinatown, Solano Canyon and Lincoln Heights, who fought to transform the park – a former train yard transformed “brown field” who sat down vacant for more than two decades – into state-owned green space for public use instead of being developed as an industrial center. The park area is also a historical focal point for the development of early Los Angeles. A remnant of the historic Zanja Madre, which carried water from the LA River to Los Angeles’ El Pueblo, can still be seen there.
The park opened to the public in 2017. During the COVID-19 closures, it served as a much-needed outdoor escape for local residents to congregate – the open sky being an integral part of this peaceful respite.
“People think the ground below them is the earth,” says kitemaker Choi, “but the sky is also public land.”
Kites – the implied freedom and openness – are the perfect vehicle to express this idea.
“There is a deep richness in the history of kite making across many cultures,” adds Yank. “And it’s a very accessible activity that people of all ages and backgrounds can participate in.”
Chan makes five large-scale Rokkaku-style kites – traditional six-sided Japanese kites – made from Japanese mulberry paper, which is particularly light but also sturdy. She stenciled over the design, brushing with bright red or white printing ink with a roller. She then refined the imagery with a small hand brush.
The design, the same for all five kites, draws inspiration from both traditional Chinese paper-cut and Mexican Papel Picado styles. Stencil images are drawn from the rich cultural history of the neighborhoods. They include an abstract vision of a Tongva reed dwelling, plants native to the LA River, and a waterwheel connected to Zanja Madre, among others.
“I’m really interested in hyper-specific allegorical imagery,” Chan says, “especially symbols and images drawn from communities that can be activated and brought into conversation with each other.”
Chan also made 100 small white diamond kites. Each bears one of nine messages, such as “Protect our neighborhoods”, in English, Spanish or traditional Chinese characters. They will be free for visitors to fly on their own.
Yank says Chan was the ideal artist to design the kites, given his work at the intersection of public art and advocacy. Chan’s three-story mural on the facade of the American Civil Liberties Union building in the Westlake area, was unveiled in early 2021. Its installation of porcelain-enamelled steel panels, which is making its debut at the LA Metro’s Little Tokyo/Arts District station when it opens later this year, caters to layered history of the neighborhood.
Choi — who recently co-directed a kite-making workshop at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — mounted Chan’s paper drawings onto handmade bamboo structures with string and glue, so they could take flight.
The festival also hopes to shine a light on the housing crisis in Los Angeles, as well as the role of parks in climate resilience and social cohesion. There’s a need for more affordable housing in Los Angeles, Yank says, even in already dense urban areas. But this must be “planned carefully”.
“It’s not just about open green spaces for fun,” she says, “but really thinking about how communities stay in place, aren’t displaced, have good affordable housing options, and also have access to open green spaces and public resources. And having green space helps mitigate that concrete heat sink effect so people can congregate.
Which doesn’t mean the event won’t also be pure fun. Kites bring out the playfulness, says Chan. During the pandemic, her family took up flying kites on the beach.
“I had never been successful in flying kites before and neither had my husband,” she says. “But it has become a new hobby. We felt like children again.
Clockshop says the American Kiteflies Assn. recommended the location of Los Angeles State Historic Park, which frequently turns into a real wind tunnel in the afternoon, making it an ideal spot for kite flying.
At Saturday’s event, kite masters Scott Skinner and Joe Hadzicki will be there for demonstrate techniques and give advice. Wind conditions permitting, Kim Wong, daughter of famed Disney animator and kite prolific Tyrus Wong, will pilot her late father’s large-scale animal creations, including a 96 foot long crossover millipede.
There will also be fabric dyeing workshops, printmaking and paper craft workshops, as well as live musical performances.
“It’s about celebrating the beautiful diversity that LA is,” says Yank. “About coming together in this space that we fought for.”
‘Peoples of Community and Unity Kite Festival’
Or: Los Angeles State Historic Park, 1245 N Spring St., Los Angeles
When: Saturday May 21, 2-6 p.m.