To Terry Zee Lee, flying customized kites is like watching an aerial art show that not only entertains spectators and kite fliers but also helps them heal and learn. Whenever she has taught workshops or organized festivals or traveling exhibits, she said she has seen how kites can restore and transform people’s attitudes.
“There are so many great kite stories,” said Lee, 69, who founded the nonprofit organization SkyWindWorld in Billings 20 years ago, to teach about the transformative and artistic power of making and flying kites. Her associate, Drake Smith, 70, a retired engineer, helps design and sew the kites. “Flying a kite just makes a person feel happy.”
While doing a workshop, a student who was angry at the world designed a kite with a middle finger erected to flip off the world. “We talked, and he realized he was angry with people—not nature—and ended up changing the design to a peace sign,” she said.
Another time, at Wyola School on the Crow Reservation, a gust of wind caused a student to accidentally lose a $1,000 kite that had a buffalo emblem on it, which Lee had commissioned from Blackfeet artist John Cadotte.
“We all watched it fade away,” said Lee, who offered a $100 reward for its return. “For months, kids were on their bikes, four-wheelers, and horses looking for it.”
Lee intuitively knew it would be found.
“It floated away toward an area where cattle and buffalo graze,” she said. “Once ranchers started running their cattle to the high country, I was pretty sure someone would see it.”
Sure enough, three months after its disappearance, a rancher retrieved it from a gully.
“It had been stomped on, was torn, and had dried buffalo manure on it. We put it back together and brought it to the school for the student to fly again,” she said. “He was devastated when he lost it. When he saw it again and started flying it, you could see him grow inches taller and heal. He was so happy.”
In April, when a 3,000-foot addition to Wyola School will be dedicated, staff and students plan to fly kites during the celebration.
Throughout April and May, Lee travels to schools in Montana, other states, and Canada, to teach students about the wonders of kites.
“My program is STEM with the letter A added (STEAM),” she said. “To make a kite, you’re not only using science, technology, engineering and math, but creating a work of art.”
Lee became enchanted with kites as a child when her mother made her and her siblings tie a kite to their wrists, so they could easily be seen on Oregon beaches. Her mother also taught her an appreciation for Native American culture.
Her two childhood interests merged with a cathartic visit to First Peoples Buffalo Jump near Great Falls. She envisioned kites with images of buffalo on them rising, where the animals had once fallen to feed tribal members. Her traveling exhibits of custom kites, called “The Flying Buffalo Project” and “Visions of Lewis and Clark,” have been well received throughout the world.
Every year, Lee organizes kite festivals at buffalo jumps throughout Montana. On June 16, a festival is scheduled at the Madison Buffalo Jump near Three Forks. On July 14, kites will brighten the sky at the First Peoples Jump.
Other Montanans cherish kite flying, too. In Livingston the first Sunday of the month at 4 p.m. at the Northside Soccer Fields, Chip Njaa hosts a kite festival in spring, summer, and fall.
“We have the biggest turnout in May,” said Njaa, owner of Livingston Kite Company. “We have about 150 people who are anxious to get outside in the sunshine after the darkness of winter.” He offers kites and advice at his shop.
At Lee’s website, skywindworld.org, she provides free plans to make an easy-to-fly Eddybird kite. “It’s a reliable flier for anyone’s pleasure,” Lee said. She may be reached for scheduling classes and festivals at 406-698-9369, or at her website.