LOOK, MA! IT CAN FLY : Dragons, Elephants--All Kinds Soar at Muckenthaler Kite Show

Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Standing under a huge kite in the semi-menacing form of a Pterosaur, 9-year-old William Hidalgo had only one thought: This is way cool, but can it fly?

"Isn't it too big?" the Brea youngster asked his mom. "But just think what it would look like!"

William, who visited the Muckenthaler Cultural Center's "Wings of the Imagination" show one recent afternoon, can rest easy. The 16-foot-long kite can indeed become airborne. All the 27 kites in the exhibit can, from the traditional ones to the more far-out, more artistic examples.

"Sure, most people, including myself, were surprised that all of them can get up," said Robert Zingg, exhibition administrator for the Fullerton center. "But that's one of the requirements--that no matter how large (or how) unusual, they can fly."

When told that, William was speechless, but his look said: Hey, there's wind blowing today. Can we?

Not this afternoon. The kites, from the collection of noted Arizona kitemaker Leland Toy, are meant to be looked at and admired for now. This traveling show, sponsored by the Arizona Commission on the Arts, will remain at the Muckenthaler through Aug. 29.

"We think this is a great exhibit for the summer months (because) kites are so symbolic of this time of year," Zingg said. "Everyone, especially kids, seems amazed at the variety. We have a preconceived idea of the diamond-shaped kites, but once people see how different these are, they're very surprised."

Off to one side of the exhibit is a monitor featuring a video of an interview with Toy, an affable-seeming man who studied to be an architect but became a kite craftsman instead. His passion is obvious. "A kitemaker imparts part of his soul into his kites," Toy says solemnly.

Asked about the origins of kites, he traces them back 2,500 years to ancient China, where they spread to surrounding Asian countries and were likely introduced to Europe by explorer Marco Polo.

The very first kite?

"Probably when a farmer's hat blew off in the wind," Toy says with a small grin.

Zingg noted that most of the kites are fairly new but that their variety spans continents. Besides the nylon, wood and fiberglass creations of American and English artists and kite makers, there are examples from China, Korea, Japan, Bali, Thailand, India and France in more traditional materials such as paper and lightweight bamboo.

The range is impressive. A "dragon" kite from China features a fierce head and compressed sections decorated with paint and feathers. Strikingly compact in its display case, the kite stretches to more than 45 feet once in the air.

Three rectangular pieces from Japan are simple in design but carefully hand-painted with faces of gods and other cultural characters. The three-dimensional "fruit bat" kite from Bali and the "peacock" kite from China are highly stylized, delicate creations.

Everything gets more artsy, more whimsical with the Western kites, especially those by Americans. The Pterosaur by George Peters is the most eye-catching of the creature-kites, but Stan Swanson's "elephant" kite has to be the most whimsical, with its long gray trunk serving as a tail for aerial stability.

Scott Skinner's "cowboy" kite leaves the literal behind. Rectangular, it's decorated in orange and white squares with blue, brown, red, yellow and black interlocking shapes.

There's also geometric simplicity in Kathy Goodwind's "astroid" box kite and a sleek "stunt" kite--those speedy numbers you can see diving and soaring at the beach--made by a U.S. company called Revolution.

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