When I first moved to Hoboken I read a blurb in a local magazine about a woman who was creating art out of masking tape. It sounds like a novelty idea, but “Tape Girl” Kayt Hester is actually a terrific artist – and, like my last interviewee, is doing great things with everyday objects. She painstakingly creates her work by ripping the tape into pieces with her bare hands – no scissors or Exacto blades are used – and assembles them into images which are striking for both their roughness and their precision (in particlar, I fell for this Lady of Guadalupe). Kayt’s compositions are innovative and unpretentious, and she was kind enough to answer some questions for me before the opening of her new show at LITM in Jersey City on June 2.
DD: I’ll start with the most obvious question. Why tape?
KH: Why tape? Well, I had a lot of black darkroom tape left over from my days as a professional photographer. When i retired from photography (more like lost my job) I sold most of my equipment but had all this tape. One day I picked it up and just started playing around with it, ripping it up and making little pictures, then slightly larger pictures. It took on a life of its own. It just grew.
What was the first work you did where it was more than just playing around, where you said to yourself, “yeah, this is a legit thing”?
Its funny because it took other people to make me see it was legit. In 2005 I had decided I wanted to try my luck at getting a photography show somewhere in Jersey City, so I took my portfolio to LITM and met with Jelynne Jardiniano, the owner. Somehow there were a few of my small tape pieces randomly tucked in my portfolio, which must have been an accident. I did not intend to show them to anyone; I think I had only stuck them in there to keep them flat. Jelynne liked my photos, but she was much more into the tape work, which was surprising to me, because I had not looked at it in a serious way. She told me to go home and make more, and if they looked good then maybe I could get into a group show. I went home and got to work, and she eventually gave me a spot in a group show called “Elecktra Complex.” Jelynne could have easily just closed my portfolio and said “no thanks” and I would have gone home and watched Law and Order instead of diving into the box of tape. But the show went really well and other offers for shows started to just roll in. She lit a fire under me and changed everything that day.
Kudos to her! Am I correct in assuming, then, that most of your work is inspired by photography – either yours or others’?
Yes! Many and most of my images are based on my photographs. However I will often see an image from one of my friends that strikes meand I know it would be great in tape, so I will get their permission to tape it. They are usually pretty excited to see their image re-done in tape. I just did a series of moths and I used images from various sources.
There’s something fitting about the JFK/Jackie/LBJ images, because when I think of them I’m already picturing somebody holed up in a darkroom trying to reconstruct old photographs, but instead you’re patching together newpictures with photographic tape. What’s the inspiration behind those?
Well, I wanted to tell a story about Jackie. It was like- a mini story of her life, starting off as young Jackie Bouvier and her camera, to a portrait of a happy and graceful Mrs.JFK, to that horrible moment she had to stand there while LBJ was sworn in and she still had her husbands blood all over her, to the final piece in the series of her at the funeral. I guess I could have finished it off with a portrait of her as Jackie Onassis, but I felt the story ended with the funeral, because she became so much more private as Jackie O.
I think the truth of the matter is that i wanted to impress my dad with something historical! So I picked Jackie Kennedy because her story is interesting, and with her pale skin and dark hair she was perfect for the tape.
You’ve done a series of work depicting a cleaning bottle which I really like. When I first looked at one of them, for a split second I saw the silhouette of a seated lamb turning his head to the right, with a floppy ear. In another, the camouflage effect almost makes it look like a weapon. You’ve succeeded in making a spray bottle fascinating. Any particular thing I should take away from these?
Wow! The Windex bottles are old. I haven’t even thought about them in years! Its funny because my friend thought it was a homage to her Dalmatian and she loved the piece for that, so I gave it to her. It was a happy accident. I didn’t plan for the lamb or the dog…it just happened! The plan was just a simple study of a Windex bottle! I used to play around with positive/negative space more than i do now. These days I’m more straight forward and simple.
Do you draw or sketch your subjects ahead of time and then tape over it, or just hit the tape right away?
I never draw on the canvas. I will tape and unpeel an image several times, though, ’til its right. The good thing about tape is that you can stick it on and peel it back off many, many times if you need to without leaving one mark on the canvas, while still working out the image. If I don’t like something i will just peel everything off and start again.
Do you ever feel limited by the medium? Is there ever a time when you’ve said “this would look great if I added paint, or even a different color tape?”
Well, not so much. I used to do stuff where I would mix in blue tape with the black, and I experimented with red and silver tapes also, but then I always seem to strip it down to just black and white and it feels better to me. The simple black and white just feels better to my guts. I never feel limited with just the black tape. I always seem to get exactly what I want from it..
When you learn a foreign language, it’s a sign that you’ve mastered it when you start to think in that language, as opposed to thinking in English and then translating it. So do you think in tape now? Do you dream in tape? When you see a sunset, do you immediately think of masking tape?
Yes guess I see things in terms of tape. There are people and objects who are just meant to be taped. They stand out, and then its time to get the tape!
If a masking tape company asked you to be the spokesperson, would you do it? Did you ever consider changing your name to “Tape Dispenser?”
HELLS YES I would be a spokesperson for a tape company! That would be both amazing and funny. As it is, I often will get “Hey, aren’t you the tape girl?”
What’s your dream project – if you could tape a picture of something in someplace, what would it be?
I would have to say my dream project would be something on glass in a big public place like a train station or something.. Maybe a nice big glass window in an important building of some sort, preferably in NYC, but another country would be cool too.
Kayt’s “The Formula of Summer” hangs from June 1 to July 4 at LITM in Jersey City.