A Profile of Tom Van Sant, Father of the Modern Kite

Few things are more reminiscent of childhood than flying a kite. Just the thought conjures up memories of summer afternoons at the beach, yards of impossibly tangled string and the story of everyone’s favorite umbrella-clad, British nanny. Kites have a long standing history in the place of childhood, along with a past rooted in Chinese culture. The 2,300-year existence of the kite is vast, but predominantly stagnant with its construction and shape remaining similar throughout time. That is until more recently. In 1975, kites received a much needed upgrade thanks to artist Tom Van Sant. His revolution in kite building resulted in the flying creations we are familiar with today. The kites many of us flew as children, that brought us such joy, are a direct result of his work.

Van Sant is a well accomplished artist, with the vast majority of his projects having little to do with kites. He spends his days in his Santa Monica Canyon studio, located just east of Pacific Coast Highway, working on commissioned statues and installations.

His resume is overwhelming, filled with dozens of notable projects, exhibitions and speaking engagements. He has founded multiple organizations, served on boards for prestigious museums and taught at a number of different educational institutions. Over the past six decades, Van Sant has completed over sixty major sculptures and murals for public spaces around the world and has presented fifteen one-man exhibits in the United States, Europe and Australia. Yet with all of his accomplishments, Van Sant is perhaps most famously known for creating flying masterpieces – kites of unthinkable intricacies, proportions and design.

Trampoline Kite - Tom Van Sant

Referred to by many as “the father of the modern kite,” Van Sant’s work has inspired kite makers across the globe, including today’s most regarded, George Peters. Van Sant’s innovation shifted the history of the kite into the models we are familiar with today. He was the first person to use fiberglass tubing and nylon fabric in kite construction and pioneered an era of kites built with exoskeletons. When asked what materials were used prior to his reinvention, he replied, “wood and paper.” Describing him as a revolutionary is no understatement.

Wong - Tom Van Sant

He consulted with aerospace engineers on kite construction, but they were of little help. “Kites are the aerodynamics of stall,” says Van Sant, and stall is what flight experts desperately try to prevent. Left to his own devices, Van Sant pioneered a new age of kite construction – there was no manual and no research to rely on. “I was on my own,” says Van Sant, “which was great in many ways, because there was no right or wrong way to do it.”

Van Sant is part scientist, part sculptor, artist, kite maker, engineer, environmentalist…the list goes on. He is truly a renaissance man – a modern day Leonardo da Vinci – using his carefully designed drawings as instructional mechanisms for large-scale kites and innovative launching machinery.

Van Sant displays one of his intricate kite drawings

One of Van Sant’s most elaborate kites is Jacob’s Ladder.  Named after the biblical story depicting a ladder that leads to heaven, this particular kite consists of 200 segments, lifts up to 2,000 pounds, is a quarter mile long, and can physically be climbed into the sky.

Perhaps most impressive, Van Sant built and completed all of his kites in the year of 1975. After exhibiting his flying artwork at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Van Sant toured the world with his kites. Then, most modestly, he returned to his previous work of creating commissioned sculptures and paintings.

He has not built a kite since. Yet, the recognition of his profound work has not diminished.

Ghost Kite - Tom Van Sant

Recent interest in his kites came up over a year ago when his alma mater, Otis College of Art & Design, approached him about teaching a kite making class. (Van Sant attended Otis on the G.I. Bill after serving as a Rifle Platoon Commander in the Korean War.) For a semester, Van Sant’s students met each week at his studio to learn the art of kite making and to construct their own flying creations. Per Van Sant’s request, the class culminated in Otis’ first ever annual kite festival where students flew their final creations and youth from the Junior Blind of America, St. Jude’s Hospital and the Urban Compass were invited to make their own kites and join Van Sant, along with the top kite makers from across the country, for a day at the beach.

Van Sant in his Santa Monica Canyon Studio with his dog, Lady

Van Sant’s lifetime of work is far from over. At the age of 81, he still works as a commissioned artist and has no plans of slowing down. He talks about his friend, fellow artist and kite maker Tyrus Wong, who attended Otis’ kite festival in April – Wong is 101 years old. If Wong can break triple digits, so can he. “The sky’s the limit,” says Van Sant, he still has decades of work ahead.

Kites by Tom Van Sant