Billings couple sends art aloft, lifting spirits in the process

For part of Terry Zee Lee’s childhood, her family lived near the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. She and her three sisters and her brother would often spend the whole day playing on the beach. Their mother, who wanted to keep an eye on them but had things to do, would tie a kite string to each child’s wrist, so that they were all tethered to kites soaring above the beach.

Their mother could do her work around the house while periodically looking out the window and counting kites. You might say that Lee has been attached to kites ever since.

Another formative experience in her youth was her interaction with a group of Native American women. She and her siblings spent a month every summer at their grandparents’ house in Red Mountain, Colo., and Lee would see “these marvelous, beautiful Southern Ute women” sitting in clusters on downtown benches. Soon she got to know them, and she would sit with them all day long, mesmerized by their conversations in a language she didn’t understand.

Her mother, a teacher, reinforced her admiration for Native American people and culture. “Mom taught us, if there was any royalty in America, it was the native tribes,” she said.

Many decades later, in ways that would have been hard to imagine way back when, Lee would combine her two passions, creating exhibitions and staging spectacles involving kites bearing beautiful, elaborate works of Native American art. Most notably, she has gone to buffalo jumps in Montana, Wyoming and Alberta, Canada, for the past four summers, flying kites bearing Native American images over cliffs that once drew bison to their deaths.


John Warner

Callan Parker, 3, helps her grandfather Alan Parker fly a kite at John H. Dover Memorial Park in Billings.

One of the artists commissioned to create art for the buffalo jump project, Angela Babby, said “it was amazing … miraculous,” to see her painting, “Resurrection,” sailing high above a buffalo jump. And holding onto her creation in flight was another revelation.

“It’s really hard to fly,” she said. “It’s like being with a horse.”

This fall, Babby and two other Native American artists accompanied Lee and her husband, kite maker Drake Smith, to the International Dieppe Kite Festival in Normandy, France, one of the biggest kiting events in the world.

Almost everywhere she flies her kites, Lee also works as an educator, going into classrooms to teach children the basics of science, engineering and math through the making and flying of kites. Those aren’t the only lessons that kiting has to teach, though.
Every summer for many years, Bill Snell has brought young Indians from all over North America to a “Two Worlds Cultural Immersion Camp” at Fort Smith on the Crow Indian Reservation. Snell, director of Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and president of the Pretty Shield Foundation, said the camp uses Native American cultural traditions and principles to help troubled young people find their way in the world. These are kids who have dealt with drug and alcohol addictions, who have been physically, mentally and sexually abused.

The young people are taught the principles that will help them have better lives, and the lessons are driven home through “experiential exercises” involving horses, plants and Native American battle sites—and, for some years past, creating and flying kites with Terry Zee Lee.

Lee remembers one young man in particular, an Ojibway from Manitoba who was angry at the world, angry at himself, locked in a shell that seemed impossible to penetrate. But Lee kept trying, and at last the young man started working on a drawing that would be made into a kite. The drawing consisted of a hand, giving the finger. Lee, unflustered, patiently worked with him, asking whether his anger extended to the natural world, too, or just to other people and himself.

He acknowledged that he felt at peace when he was alone with nature. Lee suggested he add another raised finger to his drawing, changing it from a contemptuous putdown to a peace sign. He not only did that; he surrounded the peace sign with rainbows and soon he was flying it in the sky.

Snell told Lee that the boy came back the next summer, this time as a camp counselor. The kites, Snell said, have been “really amazing. When they fly them, that’s you soaring above your troubles and being a better person.”

Lee, for her part, said “little things happen now all the time with these kites, and keep me going back. We like to say that kites are only superficially trivial.”

Lee got involved with kites as an adult in the mid-1990s. The Billings-Logan International Airport had built a new terminal and Lee, long involved in tourism and promotion, told her friend, airport director Bruce Putnam, that she wanted to mount some kind of exhibit that would show off the new terminal—“make the airport really pop,” in her words.

The idea she finally hit on was kites. Their suggestion of flight, the opportunity to introduce so many colors and to fill a very large space—it all just seemed to make sense. She decided the theme of the exhibit would be the new millennium, and after doing some research she approached 18 of the best kite-makers in the world and asked them to be part of the project.

It might seem like an audacious way to get the job done, but Lee has never been shy, and she has never been one for half measures. She loved her parents, she said, but she grew up in an era when it was simply a given that the aspirations of her one brother would be more important to the family than those of herself and her three sisters.

As a result, she said, “I’ve spent most of my life doing unusual things that men told me I couldn’t do.”

As her husband, Drake Smith, put it, “Terry will cold-call anyone on the planet.”

That first kite exhibit went up in 1999, and while she was still working on it, Lee attended the American Kite Flyers Convention in 1998, where she suggested having Billings host the convention in 2001. It was an amazing thing to “stumble into the middle of that group,” made up of artists, engineers and scientists, all of them creative and many of them quite eccentric, Lee said.

The 2001 convention was held in Billings, just three weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11. It cut attendance considerably, but the convention was success—and Lee managed to sell all 18 of the millennium exhibit kites, recouping the $18,000 she had spent out of her own pocket.


John Warner

Alaina Buffalo Spirit, right, and Terry Zee Lee look skyward while Alaina learns to maneuver her kite-borne painting.

In the process, she also met Smith, a kite maker who was then still working for the CIA and living near Washington, D.C. In what capacity? He answered, cryptically enough, as “an engineer, or intelligence officer, or project engineer, whatever you want to call it.” Like Lee, he started flying kites on a beach, though he was an adult then. His sister-in-law lived in Colorado and came out to the East Coast every few years for a “beach fix.” Since he was spending so much time there, a friend bought him a kite.

The engineer in him was soon fascinated, and he got hooked on buying and repairing kites and then joined the Virginia Kite Society. “It was like suddenly discovering people from my planet,” he says.

Five years after Smith and Lee met, by which time they had both gone through divorces, they were married in 2006. When Smith retired from the CIA he moved to Billings, where their lives have revolved around kites ever since.

Lee would go on to mount other kite exhibits at the Billings airport, including a tribute to Lewis and Clark during the 2004-06 bicentennial of their expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back. Thirty American kite makers took part in the exhibition, 10 creating kites about the Corps of Discovery itself, 10 about the Native Americans encountered by Lewis and Clark and 10 about the flora, fauna and natural wonders they recorded.

That exhibit would later travel to Great Falls; Portland, Ore.; Louisville, Ky.; and Omaha, Neb. Lee said it was probably the most significant American kite exhibit ever assembled.

Lee started the Flying Buffalo Project in 2013, working with Manuela Well-Off-Man, associate curator of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., to find 20 Native American artists who would create paintings on rip-stop nylon that Smith would then make into kites.

“Terry’s the visionary and I’m the mechanic,” Smith said.

The kites were first flown that summer at Madison Buffalo Jump State Park near Three Forks, and then at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls, Vore Buffalo Jump near Beulah, Wyo., and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a World Heritage Site, in Alberta, Canada. They have gone back to all four sites every summer since.

One of the Indian artists, Alaina Buffalo Spirit, hasn’t been to a buffalo jump event yet, but she did get to see her artwork flying this summer at the grand opening of John H. Dover Memorial Park, a stunning mix of Yellowstone River bottomland and high sandstone bluffs a little northeast of Billings.

And this fall, Buffalo Spirit was one of the artists who attended the kite festival in France. The theme of this year’s festival was indigenous culture, and Buffalo Spirit met native people from New Zealand, Australia, Thailand and Bali, among other countries.

Like Lee, she wants to get children involved in making kites.

“It opened my eyes to the possibilities of teaching our native children to make different designs, to inspire them to get into it as much as the international community,” Buffalo Spirit said.

Angela Babby, who also went to France, described the experience as “a hopeful and life-altering experience.” She said it was magical to see her painting against a backdrop of sky, brought to life by the wind and viewed by people from all over the world.

“It was a visual expression that we each are part of the cosmos and we each have our place in it,” she said.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Montana Quarterly. If you’re not already a subscriber, you really should be. Check it out.

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