Issue 40: ProFile with Robert Valkenburgh

On a trip to a kite festival in Taiwan last September, I was exposed to something I’d had never seen before at any of the events throughout the USA… Kinetic sculptures (generally harmonic of nature), or “Wind Gardens” which I found out are fast becoming a staple at events all over Europe!  One of the invited guests at this festival in Taipei was Robert Valkenburgh from the Netherlands… With a glint in his eye and a quick grin, he created a sculpture 100% out of materials he secured locally which clearly lent a distinctly different and valuable aspect to the show.

During the course of the week, Robert was challenged by excessive winds which overpowered his sculpture on a few occasions… This kept him busy for hours, forced him to rebuild and reinforce, all the time with an upbeat “get it done” attitude for which I developed a great appreciation.

Getting a taste for his friendship, artistry and passion, I was moved to get inside his head and put some of that energy in the pages of Kitelife for the benefit of our readers… We’re certain you will enjoy it as much as we have.

Robert, I understand you’re a furniture designer by trade, and a kite flier “by necessity” as you put it.  What is it that leads you into the kind of ground constructs and displays we see you doing now?
First of all, it is” Artist by Necessity,” because I have always had the urge to create, ever since I learned to handle tools, and proceeded to do so, for I do not feel complete when I am not involved in a creative process of some sort.

So I not only build Kites and Wind instruments, but I also make sculptures in materials like stone, glass and steel, to name a few.

When I first started visiting Kite festivals, I noticed the abundance of forms and colors in the skies, but on the ground, there was not much going on at the time. Some flags and banners, that was about it. Wind toys were not yet there, and Wind music was totally unknown. I knew of the existence of a thing called “wind harp” but had no idea how it might look or sound.

A friend of mine came up with a drawing of a 17th.century Aeolian Harp, which I then copied. The incredible sound it made was a total surprise, and it opened up a whole new world to me. So I started building various kinds of instruments, which all had in common, that the Wind was the one playing them. The first time I took the Harp to a festival, was in 1994, the Dieppe Intern. Kite Festival in France. Displaying it, attracted others, who dabbled in wind music too. I came up with the idea, to try and do something together, combining our efforts.

I asked the festival organizers to make us officially part of their 1996 Festival. This resulted in the first Wind Garden, set up by four people, on a small corner of the Festival grounds. This was such a success, that others asked us to do displays on their Festivals too. Ten years later, this snowball effect has caused Wind gardens to appear at almost every Kite Festival, big or small, worldwide (!!!) and even spin-offs start to occur in different fields, like experimental music.

How did you get involved in kiting? What originally attracted you to it?

As most people did, I built and flew kites as a kid, but quit when I grew older. The virus hit me again when about 18 years ago, a friend came along with an AcroRacer, and we started flying together. I bought one too, and we had great fun flying. At that time, I did not know what I was getting myself into, haha!

Where are you from originally?

The Hague, the Netherlands

Is there anyone who has been a major influence on you, in regard to kiting?

I really cannot name a specific person, I think all the info I got from all those books I read and pictures I saw, sort of formed my Kiters Soul, and I just started flying and building. Surely there where kites that appealed to me more than others, and my limited skills let me build only the most easy kites in the beginning.

When my skills grew, the kites I built started to be more elaborate too. But my main interest is, and probably will be for a long time, building single line kites.

Do you have any advice or suggestions for *new* people just getting involved in kiting?

It depends on where they want to go. If they start on single lines, let them begin flying  an easy one, like a Delta, or Roller. They can be bought, but are also relatively easy to build. Plenty of time to get into the more difficult ones later on.

If they want to go for the sport kites, basically the same rule applies. Don’t make the mistake of getting a kite which will prove to be too strong for you, for that will surely get you into trouble.

The whole object of the exercise is to play with the Wind. But as soon as the Wind starts playing with YOU, you are in BIG trouble!! And the Wind will always win, remember that!

What is it about kiting that most appeals to you now and keeps you involved?

There is always the joy of creating a beautiful object, but that is true for all of my other activities too.

Kiting gives me the opportunity to be outside, meet friends and create a spectacular display, for myself as well as for an audience. But there is also, what I like to call the” Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) of Kitefliers.”

What I mean is that most of the Fliers are really beautiful, happy people and it is that happiness, playfulness and willingness to help each other when needed, that gives Kiting an extra dimension. It does not matter in which country you fly, or with whom there is always this atmosphere which says: Lets Party!!

In what ways has kiting affected your life?

Well, it made me meet a lot of beautiful people, and, getting more and more recognized as an artist in my own right, has given me the opportunity to travel, and experience other (Kite) cultures.

In a small way, Kiting and Wind Music have taken over my life, and I expect them to keep me going for the rest of this life, at least!!

I can think of worse things to do, so I am not complaining at all!!!

And I am very lucky to have my wife Heleen support me in this, although it sometimes is very exhausting, living with an overenthusiastic Kiteflier, and Aeolist!! So a lot of credit goes to her too!!

What types of kites do you favor the most, or specialize in?

Single line kites have my preference, almost all of my kites are single line, and there is no, what you might call specialization. For the last few years I have concentrated on building my own designs, all in ripstop, and I will continue to do so.

If you want to call that specialization, that’s ok with me!  I see it more as trying to be innovative and original, although being original becomes harder every day, with all these accomplished builders turning out the most beautiful designs all the time!

Lately, after some intense contacts with the Cambodian fliers, I have tried my hand at Paper and Bamboo kites, just to learn how to work these materials. Maybe later they will be added to my design collection, for although they are ancient materials, they surely can translate into contemporary designs. We’ll see what comes out of this!

How do you go about designing a new kite?

Usually they are born out of inspiration, that is, my own designs. It also happens that I find a really nice decoration, and put it on the form of kite which suits it best, like an Edo, or Rokkaku.

But most of the time I start with a sketch of the kite I have seen in my head. Sometimes it is right on the first try. Sometimes it needs a lot of extra work. But the ones which are put to paper in one stroke, so to say, are usually the best designs. When I am satisfied with the sketch, I do a drawing to scale. From that I make cardboard templates, so I can easily cut the fabric, and, if necessary, can copy a piece for repairs.

Sometimes, for a real complex kite, I might be persuaded to do a model to scale, to see if it will fly. But this hardly ever happens.

What kind of sewing machine(s) do you use?

Now there’s a laugh! All these High-Tech materials are worked on a 75-year old Singer Foot-pedal machine. No electrics, no fancy stitches, nothing but straight-forward sewing.

I have two of these machines. As said, the foot-pedal Singer, and a smaller, portable version, (kindly donated to me by Paul Chapman from the UK) also that old, to take with me to do repairs on site.

These machines proved to be capable of doing the most heavy, and the most delicate work. I am really satisfied with them.

How do you feel about kite making competition?

I am not really into competitions. I feel most kites are beautiful in their own right, and I do not like the idea of people forcing me to be better than anyone else. Not in Kiting, anyway. Kiting is about Beauty, period. Not about being better. And how can you compare a kite done out of the most expensive materials, on a super-deluxe sewing machine, with one made out of plastic and sticky tape, even if the plastic kite’s design is far more interesting? What are the criteria? Criteria, in my view, curb your possibilities. I know I have opened an unending discussion here, but that’s how I feel.

Of course I speak for myself here, and for the field of single line kites.

Sport kites, is a different matter. Competition has become in integral part of this style of kiting, so, who am I to judge? Everyone has to decide for him(her)self what they want to do.

What would you recommend to people getting into kite making for the first time?

As said before, start EASY!! Try your hand at a simple design, and try to get it flying right.

And if you are not familiar with a sewing machine, start with wood and paper, or plastic foil and sticky tape.

I started this way, when I did not yet have the money to buy ripstop and glass-fiber!

And I can tell you, some of these plastic kites STILL FLY, even after almost 18 years!!!

Aside from kiting, what other hobbies/sports/activities are you involved in?

Although Kiting and Wind Music takes up most of my spare time, I still manage to squeeze in some Ice skating (I played hockey for about ten years), Rollerblading, and I am a practitioner of Aikido and Iaido.

In between all these activities, I make and exhibit sculptures in wood, glass, stone and steel.

Al this pretty much fills up my day, but I feel I am always short on time, for there are a lot of other things that have my interest too.

Is there anything you’d like to say to the kiting world as a whole?

Just: KEEP ON FLYING, and BRING JOY TO THE WORLD!!!! (for it really needs it…)

Oh yes, here’s a beauty: The only rule governing creativity, is the act of creation itself !!

What thoughts do you have on kiting’s influence on global culture?

That’s a tough one! Apart from most Asian countries, where kiting has been part of their culture for millennia, and is fully integrated in their way of life, the “West” seems very poor in comparison.

Here, most of the time, kiting is still looked upon as “child’s play”, although a lot has been done to rid us of that stigma.

I do not think there is an overall influence noticeable, only amongst fliers there is a mutual respect and understanding. It would be great, if, through our flying, we could bring the world closer together, but I am afraid, this will always be a dream. I am a romantic at heart, so I will always hope for the best, but on the other hand, I am also not blind to the reality surrounding us.

Of course, Kite festivals can do a lot to promote these feelings of respect and understanding, but the willingness to incorporate this into your daily life has to be there, otherwise the attempts are futile. So the only thing we can do, is do our best!!

Do you see any differences in the way festivals are done in the USA, compared to other countries?

This one I cannot answer truthfully, since I have only been to one festival (so far) in the USA, namely Madison ‘s Kites on Ice.

What are some of your favorite kite festivals, and why?

First, let me say, that I like ALL kite festivals, because they are Kite Festivals!!

But there are always personal preferences, aren’t there, and I do hope to be able to add some USA festivals to the list soon!

— For me, there is the ART e VENTO festival, in Cervia, Italy. A nine day gathering of international fliers, with a BIG artistic undertone and the most elaborate and artful Night-flights you have ever seen!. I could tell you stories……….. !!!!

— Then, every two years, there’s DIEPPE International Kite Festival, in France. This one is simple. You meet the Whole World there, so it is a huge reunion of friends from every corner of the Earth, also lasting nine days, and a huge crowd comes to visit every day, including the wonderful night-flight.

— Also, there is this incredible (small) event in Knokke, Belgium, called PASSPORT TO HEAVEN.

The beach is almost too small to fly, but the atmosphere is INCREDIBLE!!! A little chaotic, but in a beautiful way, and the food is OUTSTANDING. There is a kitchen crew preparing, on site, TWO fresh meals a day for all invited guests, there are parties and fireworks, live music and beautiful people! Marvelous.

This is just to name a few, without wanting to deprive all other fine Festivals of their glory.

We all know how much work it is to org anise such an event, big or small, and all these people deserve our deepest respect and admiration!! Without them (and the sponsors) we would all still be flying in our own backyard, now would we !!

Do you think that the kiting scene will ever become mainstream, and how might we go about making it happen?

Hopefully this will happen, but it will need a change in attitude towards kiting, by the general public, and through them by our beloved sponsors!! As long as it is still seen as child’s play, nothing will change, and people will go home after a festival, satisfied with what they have seen, but missing the greater picture.

I know we, as fliers, will do all in our power to make the best of it, but it has to be a two-way street.

We can promote all we want, but if the willingness is not there amongst the ones we are “preaching” to… ?

Who, if anyone, has influenced your work at all?  For example, we’ve found references to “
Wind Gardens ” on web sites from other design firms. Have any other design firms or practitioners influenced your work much?  And how about other NON “ Wind Garden ” designers and artists. Have any of these other “outdoor artists” influenced your work?

Of course inspiration comes from all kinds of factors, so who can say who inspires who, Wind – or other Artist alike!  But each of us has influenced the others, and because we stay in close contact, experiments and new findings are shared among all,  but being the one who started the whole Wind Garden hype, I might say, that I have had a major influence on the others. It was me who came up with the name Aeolists, to give the media and general public something to recognize us by. From there on, each Aeolist developed his/her own line of work, or preferred form in which to participate. This not only produced various lines of instruments, but also different “scenic” type of gardens. There are some among us, who tend to experiment more with different Instruments than others (Didier Ferment, France), and there are also who became more interested in the historical side of things (Uli Wahl, Germany).

Over the years this has grown into a seamless cooperation between “Aeolists” and “Sceneologists”, producing a complete concept of combining Wind Music with Art installations and displays of Wind Toys and the like.

But the main driving force behind these Gardens consist of four people, namely Didier Ferment and Bruno Tondellier from France, Uli Wahl from Germany and me, Robert’ the Wind Man’ Valkenburgh (Holland) Over the years lots of other people have joined, and are just as important a part of the displays as we are.

But we four are the ones whose main interest is having the Wind play its songs, for all to hear and enjoy.

Did you initially expend lots of time and energy researching and testing the sound generating portion of your display designs, or is “experience the best teacher” in this case? What have you learned from other artists, and what have you discovered for yourself?

To be honest, most of the principles of generating Wind Music are already centuries old. Take the humming bows of the Asian kites, or the Bamboo organs of the Polynesians, or the Nantong kite flutes from China .

We are just breathing new life into these old concepts, and adding our own new findings, and displaying them in an artful form, different from the originals. So, a lot of the sound producing qualities of different (ancient) materials were well known, the challenge lies in trying to incorporate modern materials, and sometimes that is a time consuming experimental process.

Again, we all benefit from each other’s work here, and knowledge is shared equally amongst us.

Okay, we now have you equipped to create dazzling displays, complete with wind-generated sound capabilities, but another part of the puzzle is still missing.  When did you begin to actively “plan” displays or constructs in advance, or do you simply go to the festival site, discover the environment, and design/build from that point?

Well the whole thing started simply as a means of decorating my space on the flying field. There was no other reason than that. That it took off from there, is, that it was something new and unknown. That it has taken on such proportions after about ten years, still fills me with a feeling of surprise and wonder!

The “planning” started when invitations started coming in, and I had to have more information about the sites to be able to make good use of the existing situation. But the final form of the exhibition usually depends on what the organizers have in mind, and of their budget, of course, because dragging all this material all around the world, can become a little expensive sometimes.

When being invited to festivals inside Europe, all traveling is done by motor home, and my Instruments have been designed to fit the luggage space of the car. This limits me somewhat in size, but gives me the opportunity to show at least a dozen different pieces at each exhibition, which are rotated regularly, so I do not present the same expo twice at the same site.

Sometimes, materials found on site are used to create, what I call: “Temporary Art” These are (aeolian) pieces, made entirely of natural materials, so that they can be left to the elements, and slowly return to the Earth, where they came from in the first place.

When doing things outside of Europe ( USA : Kites on Ice, or Taiwan : Taipei Festival, to name just two) there is always a choice to be made by the organizers. If they have the budget for it, my whole exhibition can be shipped in advance, or, I can construct an Aeolian piece or pieces on site, shape and size depending on locally available materials.

Needless to say that Asia, with its abundance of Bamboo, gives me ample opportunities to build to my hearts desire! (see pics. Taiwan festival)

Thank you, Sir… I think we have all of the “pieces” in place now.  Can you give us an idea of how your displays have evolved over time?  Also, do you tend to “think” the design process through differently now that you’re more experienced as an “Aeolian Artist?”  If so, how has the design process changed?

Surely there has been a development in design and sound quality, and I hope to achieve more and better pieces each time. However, being somewhat of a “purist” I only design Instruments where the Wind is the Composer and Musician. This results in a different “soundscape” each time, since we all know that no two windy days are ever the same!

If I would use the wind merely as a source of energy, and let it power, for instance, windmills, driving objects or causing movement, then the sounds created will always be repetitive, and are not Wind Music as I perceive it.

What does change is the form of the Instruments. After a while, I always get the feeling I have done enough in a specific form, and it needs to be changed. This can be done by totally changing design, but also by using completely different materials.

One important thing has been to display all Instruments in a uniform way, so the whole expo becomes one soundscape, instead of a dozen different objects. This will remain the one constant in my displays, while Instruments will change all the time.

Can you give us an idea of the kinds of materials you use to create the visual and audio effects you’re looking for?   Also, where do you obtain the materials for your displays – at home or at the festival sites?

Luckily, I can use a wide variety of materials. The only requirement is their being relatively weatherproof.

So this means I have to use more sturdy materials when constructing an Aeolian Piece, meant for permanent display in a public area. For my smaller pieces, I can use more fragile materials sometimes, also because I do not really have to allow for vandalism so much as with a permanent piece.

On the whole, materials used are: Wood, Bamboo, Aluminum, Glass, Steel and various kinds of plastics.

Most of these can be found anywhere, but some sorts of wood, I get directly from Nature, being provided in a form which needs little work to be turned into an Instrument.

Ornamentation can be used sometimes, or high-gloss lacquer, and various materials are used for decoration purposes.

So in all, there are really a lot of materials which can be used to create Aeolian Instruments, some are more simple than you might think possible! In my children’s workshops for instance I use bamboo, corks and rubber bands to make small Aeolian Instruments, or plastic bottles to make organ-like structures.

Especially with children it is important that construction does not take too long, or they lose interest. Most of these children’s Instruments take about 15 minutes to build, so for them its Instant Satisfaction!!!

So far, we’ve seemed to focus exclusively on the “
Wind Garden” ground displays you construct at kite festivals.  I’d like you to discuss the “Aerial” displays you do now.  Do you do custom kites and/or line laundry or banners or other fabric displays for festivals?   If so, do you do them specifically on the request of the promoter, or do you devise your own displays and show them whenever someone requests an aerial display?

Usually I bring all my kites and the flags and banners I have made. As with most fliers, I suppose, after a period of building quantity, you start designing your own kites. This reduces the numbers, but improves the visual quality, I think. Nowadays, with all these magnificent Kitemakers around, it is hard to be original in the designs you make.

Sometimes I build a special kite, if requested, or if the Festival has a special theme. Normally I just fly the kites which are most suited to local conditions, but I always try to fly my own “Probe” designs whenever possible.

Last year I finished Probe 14, and plans are underway for Probe 15 (Probe being an anagram of my name and the Dutch verb ‘proberen”, which means “to try”) And it relieves me of the problem to come up with a name for each new kite, haha!

Robert, do you often do “combined” displays – where both aerial and ground displays are used and coordinated?

In most cases I have a combined exhibition, sometimes with a children’s workshop added.

This works for most kite festivals and for some of the experimental music festivals too.

There is a newfound tendency with some experimental musicians, to combine computer generated music with Wind Music, either as a live mix of prerecorded Aeolian sounds working together with a performance, or a combined live performance of Aeolian instruments and “normal” instruments. There have been some amazing performances, I can tell you!!

Some of them have combined all the elements, meaning music, Wind Music, Kites and live performances, into one theatrical sort of exhibition. Lots of fun, and innovative too!!

Also, are your aerial displays also “Aeolian” displays, that is, sound-producing?  If so, how do you generate sounds aloft?

Sometimes they are. If weather conditions allow for this, I love to combine the two. There are some kites I have modified, or even specially designed, to carry Aeolian Instruments. Usually they are either humming bows, or flutes of different shapes and materials. In this way, sounds carry a lot farther than they would on the ground. Even a taut kite line sings. All fliers know this phenomenon. So a lot of times the Aeolists give some sort of combined performance, using both ground based and airborne Instruments connected by singing Kitelines and Longstringharps (single stringed Instrument with a resonator and a 150-300 foot string)

All right, Robert.  Two final questions…   What do you envision for the future in your craft?  Where do you intend to take this magical art?

I, and my friends with me, hope to spread Wind Music across the whole world, as a thing of beauty, to please, and bring wonder and astonishment to the people. For me personally, I want to continue specializing in building Aeolian Harps in all sorts of materials and sizes, for Festivals, Public spaces and for interested individuals, and taking it from a “pastime” into an art form!!

It is time for people to enjoy a beautiful experience like listening to Windharps sing, and let the beauty of it ease their worried souls!!! The Wind has been too long associated with negative forces. It is High Time we emphasize its beautiful properties too!!

And finally – What is all this creative effort doing for you, Robert? Are you having fun doing this?

Sure I have, otherwise I would not be doing it, now would I ?????

But it is also allowing me to grow as an individual and craftsman and enabling me to bring some joy into other person’s lives.

I think giving joy is a very important and valuable thing to do.

Fine sentiments, Robert.  Great words like “fun, growth, and joy” are all certainly the real essence of Kiting!  So thank you so much for the gifts you continue to spread to the entire kiting community, worldwide…  We delight in having you among us – growing, giving, and spreading joy!  You’re right – it’s important and valuable work.  Besides, it’s downright FUN!

No please, it is me who has to thank you for the opportunity given me in this interview to express my thoughts and feelings.

I hope it will be an inspiration to many, but if only a few benefit in any way, I will be totally content. For is it not all Kitefliers mission to promote the benefits of this freedom called “Kiteflying?” And for me, there is the added attraction of “Aeolian Music” to be made available to the world.

I sincerely hope this interview will inspire people to experiment with Windmusic, and combine it with flying their beautiful Kites, to the pleasure and wonder of us all!! FLY THEM HIGH!!!!!

– Interview by Dave “Geezer” Shattuck –

For more information about Robert Valkenburgh and his amazing creations, be sure to visit his web site here: