If Charlie Sotich sold his work by the pound, he would be the highest-paid craftsman in the world.
Sotich is a kite maker, but he does not design the diamonds and dragons that skate across windy April skies. His tiny kites--which he builds out of napkins, postage stamps, sugar packets, and squares of Mylar--are meant to be flown indoors, sailing at the end of sewing thread or silk filament. Outside of Japan, homeland of this precious art, no one makes miniature kites better.
"There are a lot of people who make very nice kites," says Scott Skinner, president of the Drachen Foundation, an international kite fliers association. "But Charlie is consistently at the top of the heap."
In April, Skinner took a collection of American kites to Japan for the Fourth Great Miniature Kite Contest. Sotich was the only non-Japanese to win a prize: he took first in the best-in-flight category.
"There's a very active group and following of miniature kites in Japan," Skinner says. "Certainly people who are into miniature kites there know Charlie."
Al Sparling, who knows Sotich through the Chicagoland Sky Liners, a local kite club, once saw one of Sotich's creations auctioned off for $55. That doesn't sound like much, but the kite weighed 0.00035 ounces, making it worth $2.5 million a pound.
I met the craftsman at Heiwa Terrace, an Uptown retirement home for Asian-Americans where he teaches origami and other crafts. Japanese culture has clearly rubbed off on Sotich. One of his students, Frank Fujimoto, calls him tako-kichigai--kite crazy. Samples of his work--paper animals, ribbons twisted into fish--swing from the ceiling. Sotich has also brought his kites, which he keeps pinned in display cases, like the butterflies whose size and fragility they share. One is made from a Pokemon napkin, another from the cover of a Smucker's jelly packet. All bear his "chop"--a stamp with the Japanese characters for "small" and "kite."
In a clear plastic box, Sotich stores another kite too oddly shaped and too artistically bland to be pinned among the rest.
"I call this my square soap bubble," he says, shaking out a cube of transparent Mylar. He elongates his flying wand--a radio antenna with an alligator clip--and clamps it onto the nearly invisible line. Sotich's kites would be tattered by wind, so he flies them indoors, making his own breeze by swishing the wand over his head. The cube rises, then floats stiffly around the room, a bubble that will never burst, a bubble you can hold in your hand.
His smallest kite is a lavender butterfly with a wingspan of less than an inch. (This is still much larger than the smallest ever flown, which was two millimeters by two millimeters, more infinitesimal than the tip of a ballpoint pen's clicker.)
Sotich's first hobby was building model airplanes, but in the mid-1970s he went with some coworkers to the WIND Kite Festival, where he first saw miniature kites. At the time he was working as a mechanical engineer, building circuit boards for Western Electric. The kites appealed to his skill for precision, as well as his fascination with flight.
"Anything that flies," he says. "I go for a morning walk and I go past a park that has pigeons. I watch seagulls. The way they fly, it's just fascinating. They balance, and if you look closely you can see the tail pivot. When I go on a trip and I see a couple of hawks on the road, I love to watch that."
With kites, "you're making something fly, overcoming gravity, imitating the birds," he explains. "Although the kites don't come close."
Sotich's friends are always handing him odd scraps and suggesting he turn them into kites. This month, Sparling gave him a napkin from a Chinese restaurant in Portsmouth, England. I ask him to make a kite out of a dollar bill. Sotich--who has done origami with money--takes a mint-crisp dollar from his wallet, folds it in half, bends the top corners outward, and tapes a piece of string about a third of the way from the edge, on the Treasury Department seal.
"Ideally, it's supposed to be 35 percent from the top," he says. "I'm a nitpicker."
The dollar drags and flutters through the air--"oscillating and galloping" are the words he uses--so Sotich adds two tails of tinsel. It still drags and flutters. Money can buy a swift kite but it can't make one. He offers to sell the kite to me for a dollar, which seems like a bargain, considering the work he's put into it. Then he settles down with more familiar material: a napkin.
Watching Sotich work is like watching a cooking or painting show on public television: focus on a pair of nimble hands, punctuated by spare, disembodied comments. Sotich peels the napkin apart, cuts out a five-inch square, and tries to flatten out the crease. At home he'd do it with an iron, but here in the craft room of Heiwa Terrace he has to use his hands. To make a spar, the backbone of the kite, he slices a whisker-thin sliver from a strand of bamboo once used in a wok brush.
"Bamboo has a natural bend," he says. "However, you have to be careful of slivers."
The cross spar is monofilament fishing line, and the tail is two strands of tinsel. On a test flight, the corners of the napkin bend upward as the kite arrows through the room's still air.
"You can make one of these probably in half an hour, if you get a little help and guidance," Sotich says. "The nice thing about making these kites is I make 'em at home and I test fly 'em, and I get my fix every day."
Since Sotich retired from Western Electric 18 years ago, he's flown all over the world behind his kites. Twice he has been a guest at Japanese kite festivals. Epcot Center in Orlando invited him to its World Festival of Kites in 1995. Next spring, he'll teach a kite club in Washington State.
Sotich has even written a book on his passion. He keeps a copy in the pocket of his plaid shirt, which in engineer fashion is cluttered with pencils, business cards, and even a magnifying glass. It takes a moment for him to find "General Rules for Small Kites." The book is smaller than a postage stamp, and its print is barely legible. The best advice is at the end, on page 11: "Keep it light."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.