Frequent visitors to the beaches of Delray and Boca Raton may spot above the coastline the distinct appearance of floating ocean creatures. Drifting high in the daytime breeze are 60-foot-long whales and 90-foot-tall squids. These hand-stitched, inflatable creations are kites, flown on the weekends by a retired math teacher and kite enthusiast known to beachgoing folks as Randy "the Kite Man" Lowe.
"I'm a one-man kite show," says the 61-year-old Lowe, who puts on weekend displays for families in Delray Beach and at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. "When you see huge whales and scuba divers floating above the beach, you expect to see a whole entourage of people flying kites. But it's just me. People can't believe it."
Lowe loaned a handful of his stringed creations to the summerlong exhibition "Flying High: The Story of Kites" at the Cornell Museum, a colorful catalog that includes his nylon stunt kites and dolphin-shaped inflatables. In all, about 60 tethered high-fliers are featured in a display that traces the childhood pastime from its origins in China 3,000 years ago to its scientific applications by Benjamin Franklin, the Wright Brothers and WWII ship gunners.
But to Joe Gillie, president of the Delray Beach Center for the Arts, kites remain a source of nostalgia. Gillie remembers childhood summers in Virginia, when he would collect glass bottles in his Radio Flyer wagon and recycle enough to buy a red, white and blue American Flyer kite (also on display).
"When you look at these kites, you're staring at a 3,000-year-old experience through Asian culture, and every one of them has an interesting back story," Gillie says. "The Morikami [Museum and Japanese Gardens] lent us 21 kites that were made 60 years ago from paper and bamboo. But I think the thing that people will be fascinated with most are the kites' utility."
The show also features rainbow Hi-Flyer kites from the 1960s, a 15-panel miniature-kite collection and 20-year-old Chinese dancing fighter kites, whose lines were coated with powdered glass and hardened rice sharp enough to slice through other paper kites. But the most-impressive toy may be Gillie's outsize contribution: a Chinese dragon kite with horns and a decorative, 16-foot wingspan wide enough to cover the Cornell's ceiling.
"I just want people to round the corner of the museum and go, 'Wow,' " Gillie says. "There are such incredible artworks on the kites on display that I wanted to make the biggest one possible."
"Flying High: The Story of Kites" continues through Sept. 29 at the Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture, 51 N. Swinton Ave., in Delray Beach. Admission is $3-$10. Call 561-243-7922 or go to DelrayBeachCenterfortheArts.org.