With His Handmade Kites, Artist Michael Thompson is Soaring

By Elaine Markoutsas | May 3, 2019 | People

With his stunning new series of handmade kites, Chicago artist Michael Thompson creates soaring works that have collectors clamoring for more.

Kite artist Michael Thompson (Photo by Frank Ishman/courtesy of Thompson)

Michael Thompson puts the “oldfashioned” kite in contemporary context: “It’s like a drone with strings.”

The 67-year-old Chicago artist never flew one, growing up as a boy in Westport, Conn. Nor did he ever imagine creating them. A college competition for a keg of beer at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early ’80s launched the whole thing. His 6-foot-diameter handcrafted kite failed—no wind. But that led to a showing of similar kites, hung from the ceiling in the lobby at the Goodman Theatre—which he says got a thumbs-up from visiting Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. A few more public installations followed in the atrium at the old Marshall Fields on State Street. A chunk of time off. And over the years, a huge evolution of style.

“My early kites were small, geometric, made of rice paper and split bamboo, painted with oil and acrylic with a lot of color,” Thompson notes. Then, while traveling in Korea, China and Vietnam, he started snapping up antique scrolls, vintage ephemera, kimonos, obis, drawings and paintings and began to incorporate them into his work—a contemporary collage bridging old and new. But gallerist Betsy Nathan flat out told him his kites were boring. He got bolder, more graphic and modern, and his kites began to soar. He mastered the organic art, “addition, subtraction, alteration, through which a narrative emerges” sometimes with tongue-in-cheek, Banksy-esque humor, pasting in prints of “some of the most forged artists of the 20th century, like Dalí and Warhol.”

“Composition in Red and Orange” (2017) (Photo by Michael Thompson)

Thompson’s kites are now highly collectible, ranging from $6,000 to $8,000, and decorate the homes of illustrious Chicagoans (he even did a commission for a boat), with some starring as stylish set dressing in the sci-fi TV series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. His new fave: an early-20thcentury Nigerian embroidered fabric in indigo blue ($12,000). The process never gets old. “What I like best? Oh, man—just that I can entertain myself all day long. I make myself laugh.”

Michael Keeley, gallery director for Pagoda Red, says the artist has hit his stride. “His recent collections are over the moon, his finest works to date. Each kite is a canvas of his artistic essence.” Cinco de Michael, May 4-31, Pagoda Red, 1740 W. Webster St.

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