Issue 59: Fort Worden Kitemakers Conference

When I heard my name announced at the banquet at the Washington International Kite Festival, I figured I had won a kite. It was hardly that.   It was a scholarship to the 2008 Fort Worden Kite Makers Retreat.  I was a bit overwhelmed to be honest. First off what an honor to be able to attend a conference that is in celebrating its 25th year of existence.   Add to that, that I am a fairly new kite maker; I was thrilled to be able to learn the art from the best Kite making masters in the world.

Last year I had the honor of being awarded the scholarship to the Oregon Kite Maker’s Retreat which gave me a good idea of what I was going to be experiencing.   But I had been told that Fort Worden was a unique conference.  That was an understatement.
The conference is held at the Historical Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend Washington.  This isn’t just any state park. As soon as I drove through the entry gates, I felt like I had walked back in time 100 years.   I realize this story is about kites, but it’s important to get the feel of this place. The park covers 434 acres and is located on the bluffs overlooking Puget Sound.  The fort was built in 1897 with construction of some sort continuing to 1953 when the fort was closed. Big white buildings with porches that go on forever grace the fort.  A large green lawn about the size of a football field is surrounded on three sides by soldier’s quarters as well as the fancier Officers homes.  The view on the fourth side of the lawn is incredible. It looks out over the cliffs and out to the Sound.  To add to the feel of this, imagine a castle overlooking the cliffs.  According to legend Reverend John Alexander built the castle for a Scottish bride he intended to bring home to marry. When Alexander went to Scotland to bring her home, he found she had already married another. He returned to Port Townsend alone and stayed in the castle for an unknown period of time.

Back to our own time zone, I made the drive from Bend, Oregon on Wednesday, a day before the conference started.  I wanted to be well rested after a 7 hour drive so that I would be able to keep up with the busy schedule ahead.  I stayed in Sequim Wednesday night which is a short 40 minute drive from Port Townsend and sits right up against the only actual rainforest on the North American continent.  Needless to say, it was raining when I arrived.

The conference was kicked off on Thursday with registration starting at 4 and moving into a reception till 8pm. I arrived about 11 am, and since no one was around yet, I ventured down to the beach and took about an hour long walk in the rain.  Despite being cold, it was nice to be on the rocky beach alone for a bit of quiet before the storm so to speak.

The storm came in a flurry of arrivals from all over the world.  From England to Southern CA people began gathering in the commons to register and reunite with friends.  I always feel a bit in awe walking into a room full of well known kite makers. It’s a bit like walking into an art gallery. You know the artists, and you know their work, but the mystery remains in how they do what they do so successfully.   People were busy bringing in raffle items to Marla Miller.  Kites began appearing around the commons dining room, and tables began to overflow with kite related goodies. Marla is quite the organizer as many of you already have seen. So the raffle set up appeared to moving right along smoothly.

The reception soon moved from the commons to one of the Officers homes across the green. There was unending amounts of food being brought out for what seemed like hours.  When I first got to the reception, it was a group of about 20. By the time I left 2 hours later, the place was packed. I knew that I had to get up for an early class in the morning so I headed off to find my dorm room at the soldiers quarters.  I was a bit relieved to find out that I was not the only one confused by the room numbers.  It seemed a lot of us were milling around looking lost. Thankfully a few veterans of the conference were kind enough to guide us newbie’s to our room. I could have been wandering all night looking.  My room was small .It was actually a perfect size for me as I am only 5 foot tall.  I had heard from some of the taller attendees that they had a bit of trouble fitting into the cot beds in the dorms and had chosen to rent out an officers house. I was just simply thrilled to be there and loved the fact that my room window looked out on the Sound.

Morning came too soon for me as I was a bit nervous.  I am not known for my speed in sewing so it was a goal of mine to actually complete a kite in one of the three classes I was to attend.  About three weeks before the conference, I was contacted by my first instructor Ken Conrad.  Ken was doing a class on the digitally printed fabric he uses to build Ohashi kites.  So Ken had his work cut out for him long before he ever arrived. There were approximately 15 students in the class so that meant that 15 images had been submitted to Ken and his wife, Suzanne Sadow, for pre printing on rip stop.  I think everyone there was excited to see how their images looked on rip stop.   I don’t think anyone was disappointed. It was great to see what people had chosen for their signature kite.  From monkeys, to floral to a little boy dressed in an adorable bee suite, it was fantastic to walk around and share stories about what was chosen, and the stories behind them.

Ken and his wife made a fantastic teaching team. The explanation of the printing process was presented in layman’s terms and a great slide show and lecture really painted the picture (pardon the pun) of what takes place.  Because the actual press weighs too much to move, and is quite large, it would have been impossible to actually bring it.  Ken had this covered as well. He brought a smaller heating system, and the same inks he uses in the larger press so that we could imitate the process on the kite bags we were to make.  It was really fun to actually do the procedure on a much smaller scale to see how this all worked.  I was also very impressed with the teamwork of Ken and Suzanne. There was never a moment when I had to wait for help, or to ask a question. These two really were hopping the entire class to make certain everyone got the assistance they needed.  I would take this class again… and again… Truly, it was a great experience, and if I have the opportunity again, you can bet I will be there.  Oh, by the way, I am happy to report that I  finished my kite!

I have to take a moment to tell you about the meals. These were totally social events. Everywhere you looked people were buzzing with anticipation, and stories about what were going on with their current classes and kites.  The food was served cafeteria style and every meal was a full meal.  I kept promising myself I was going to eat light while I was there. That plan went right out the window on the first day of classes, when I started out with a huge breakfast consisting of eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit and yogurt. I will stop there. My Nordic track is staring me down as I write this. Let me just say that you will not leave this place hungry. At the end of each meal was the famed bag raffle. There were so many items donated for the raffle that they held drawings at every meal with a big ending raffle on Saturday night.  I have to say I did pretty well, and was the envy of all that wanted my polar fleece flame hat.

Friday night was the beginning of the night sewing.  This famed tradition is one I was a part of at OKR last year. It consists of people staying up till the wee hours of the morning to finish a kite they had started earlier that day.  I can tell you, while it’s a great accomplishment, it can be exhausting, as the next morning we start all over again, some with new classes.

I did a bit of socializing at one of the Officer’s house gatherings, and then headed back to my room to get some rest. I had a class in the morning with Jose Sainz, whom I greatly admire, and I was determined to be bright eyed for this four hour class in the morning.

Saturday morning brought more sprinkles, and cooler air which was fine for kite making. If it had been pretty out, I know it would have been harder to be inside.

After attending another *healthy* breakfast, I hurried off to set up my sewing station in the Schoolhouse building. Jose is seriously a master at his art. Something I would like to achieve someday, but have a long way to go yet. One of the things I feel makes or break any learning situation, is how a teacher interacts with his class.  When Jose walked into class, the first thing he said with a smile was “Oh I know about you people that sit in the back”, I knew this was going to be great.  He immediately made everyone feel comfortable. There is nothing but real with Jose. His enthusiasm is contagious and you could feel the anticipation that everyone had to get started. He took the time to share with us the whys and how’s of what he does and soon we all found ourselves hot tacking and heads down over sewing machines.

My ONLY issue with this class was the fact that it was only 4 hours long. This class should be an all day class. For two reasons: One being that the project involves cutaway appliqué which takes some time to learn to do properly. And secondly, this class was just plain fun, which is a credit to Jose for making it a great learning environment.

I had another class after lunch with Dan Kurahashi of British Columbia, so I knew I would be a part of the night sewing crew.  A few of us planned on meeting back at Jose’s classroom after dinner that night.

After deciding that it was a lunch requirement to have ice cream for dessert, I headed off to the schoolhouse once again to take my first attempt at building a miniature kite. Dan Kurahashi is a well known Japanese kite master.  Seriously, Dan can split a piece of bamboo till it is barely visible to the human eye.  This was a new ground for me entirely. First off, I went prepared to set up my sewing machine but when I got to class Dan set me up with a piece of rice paper, and some bamboo rods. When I say rods I mean imagine a toothpick split into 6 parts.  I really gave the bifocals a work out that afternoon. Actually, I am thinking of having my eyes checked again.  This class was a real challenge for me. It is very precise. Mess up on one cut of your rice paper and you may as well use it as a napkin.  I worked hard the next four hours, fumbling over tiny sticks of bamboo, and trying not to cut the rice paper in the wrong spots.  Dan was very patient with me and at the end of the class I had achieved my goal of finishing a second kite. An 8 inch wide Cody War kite with a silk thread bridle and flying line. I am proud to say it flies beautifully. It even took off from my dashboard when I turned my defroster fan on.  I was totally impressed.  I find myself being more interested in miniature kites. I think another trip to the eye doctor will be required first however.

Dinner Saturday night was delicious. I sound like a food critic here instead of a kiter, but it was grand.  The company was equally as good.  Everyone was sharing stories about what they had been making.  I had wondered around the schoolhouse looking into other classes and was truly impressed. I would have liked to have had a showing of the kites built there this past weekend. Perhaps it is something that will happen in the future. I think seeing the work others are doing inspires others to give it a try. If I had more time, I would have been in classes for days based on some of the work that I saw.

After a rousing raffle that wrapped up the great giveaways, it was time to join the league of night sewing back at the schoolhouse. I was a bit surprised that there were quite a few of us from Jose’s class there.  It seems we were all determined to finish. The camaraderie of an event like this is amazing. It can be a big challenge to anyone, and there are bound to be mistakes made. What is so awesome about a situation like this is how everyone pitches in to encourage each other, and to help out when things go wrong.  Yes indeed, things do go wrong. Anytime you are sewing for 12 hours plus in a day it is bound to happen. But the things you learn from your mistakes are invaluable. Everyone has a different way of solving them, and the more you listen, the more you gain from everyone, student and teacher alike.

As for me, it was time to head home on Sunday morning. I had a long drive ahead of me. Many were staying for more classes on Sunday, and if I do this again, I will plan on taking Monday off work and staying.

I took home two completed kites, and one kite that I believe I learned more by not finishing it then I would have if I had rushed through it.   It was a fantastic weekend and I am grateful for the opportunity to attend. Next year, I plan on finishing three kites…

Keep flying, and keep learning.

Amy Doran