Making it Stick: Masking Tape Artist Kayt Hester Explores ‘The Elegant Science of a Memory’

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Memory can be a funny thing. It’s impossible to forget scenes from The Human Centipede and equally impossible to remember where you put your keys. Certain things just seem to stay, while others take an extra ounce of effort to retain.

Some of Jersey City masking tape artist Kayt Hester’s particularly sticky memories include seeing two men playing chess on the hood of a car in Serbia, while the ones that sometimes peel off her brain include where she last put that darn umbrella.

“People are always forgetting umbrellas… in taxis, at work, in restaurants, in buses — they forget them all over the place! They work so hard to protect you from the weather and keep you dry, which is more than what human friends can do for you, and they get so disrespected,” says Hester, 38. “An old acquaintance of mine had a theory — if you name your umbrella, you’re less likely to forget it. It’s a good concept and it works!”

Some of Hester’s trusty umbrellas include Gusty, Nicholas, Violet and a giant golf umbrella named The Captain, which Hester immortalized in tape (pictured below). Assigning a name — especially one with personality or impact like “Gusty” and “The Captain” — apparently humanizes the object and endears it to its owner. Hester isn’t a loony who curls up with her umbrellas and invites her friends’ umbrellas over for crumpets and tea or anything, but she definitely knows the power of non-humans to make an impact in humans’ lives. Recently, JCI interviewed her about her “klepto-kitty” Harold, who was recently featured on Animal Planet’s “Bad Dog” for his tendency to drive Hester and her boyfriend, Alex Heitzenrater of local band Aminal, crazy by stealing their things.

While she told JCI that Harold has not yet been rendered in tape (she doesn’t like the way orange tape looks and Harold is undeniably orange-and-white), she has created tape portraits of other “kits,” as she calls them, including the one resting on the lap of the masked man above.

Hester studied photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology and was a sharp shooter during her early artistic career. “I took a lot of photos of musicians back in the early 2000s and late 90s. I’d run around trying to get musicians (so I could) take pictures of their bands, do CD covers and things like that.”

Hester didn’t start making tape art until 2005 after she was unable to find job opportunities as a photographer and lost her passion for photos.

“After September 11, digital photography was considered a luxury and a lot of the studios I was working for shut down. I had to sell a lot of equipment and I could never could afford to buy it back… Things started getting difficult financially, my relationships started falling apart… it was really rough for me,” she says.

One summer day, however, she discovered a new way to express herself using a big box of black tape she found lying around her house. “I just started messing around with it, recreating old fashion photos and whatnot.”

These early tape art works were accidentally seen by Jelynne Jardiniano — the owner of local restaurant, bar and art gallery LITM — when Hester was submitting work for a photo show. Struck by the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of Hester’s black-and-white images, Jardiniano encouraged Hester to focus on tape. After a tidal wave of praise and several sales, Hester decided to stick to her new medium.

In “The Elegant Science of a Memory,” which opens tomorrow, August 7, and is her third solo show at LITM, Hester shares some of her most tender memories in her signature, minimalistic style. Using black masking tape, she cements some of the images she hopes will never slip her mind and pays tribute to some that she knows never will. These include a simple image of a telephone and a portrait of local artist, curator and PR specialist Luca Cusolito with an umbrella (like Hester’s other human subjects, Cusolito’s portrait is instantly recognizable to those familiar with the 29-year-old).

When Hester spoke with JCI last month, she was still busy preparing brand new works for the show. Most of her pieces are inspired by photographs which include some of Hester’s old work and new shots taken with a point-and-shoot (Hester’s primary photo-taking device since she gave up her old job). Even when Hester creates a work based on a concept or image in her mind, she uses photographs for reference.

“If I see a certain image that strikes me a certain way, I know it’ll work well in masking tape and know it translates well into black-and-white with no shading, no grey areas… I need to work off an image because I need to know where the folds of clothing are, how the highlights in their hair look — otherwise it won’t look as realistic as I want it to,” she says. “I’ll get the photo or a copy of the photo and just start ripping masking tape into a thousand bits and pieces and start to form the image with it. I just tape it as I go and try not to draw on the canvas too much, because I like to keep it really crisp and pure looking.”

When Hester sees a mistake, she simply unpeels the offending piece of tape and redesigns her work. While tape’s temporariness can be a boon, it can also be a huge pain on humid days when her works begin to peel. With a bit of varnish, Hester sacrifices the ability to unstick and edit her work but resolves peeling issues.

“Certain details like eyeballs and lips take forever, and if they start peeling, I have to varnish it or I have to start all over,” she says, adding that it takes a lot of effort to capture a subject’s likeness and a scene’s mood in tape. As Hester rips, tapes and varnishes away, she affixes visual names and mnemonics to many unforgettable moments in her life. For Hester, some of the images are striking enough to take her back in time and overseas to old memories, including some from the troubled post-9/11 period of her life. Despite her struggles, she admits that there were a few good times in the midst of the chaos, including that image of a quietly epic Serbian chess match.

“I was traveling around as a way to escape stuff and there were golden moments in those travels. Some of my works are based on travel photos like when I visited Belgrade, Serbia; Hungary and Jamaica — these were the golden moments in a rough time (and also) when things were starting to get a little better,” she says. “Now I have a good relationship, a great apartment, the people in my life are good people — right now, things are really good. The bad memories I’m choosing to hold on to because they keep me from making the same mistakes again, but I’m also picking and choosing the good stuff. I hope to never go through a time period like that again, but I have to remember there were good times in there and it wasn’t all bad.”

Now, Hester is focused on looking forward. After her LITM show, she says she will make the bold step to start showing in Manhattan and other places around the country.

“It’s kind of a scary thought to me, opening up to brand new people and brand new criticism — that’s terrifying. I’m very comfortable in Jersey City and I love Jersey City, I love the people here, but I know I don’t have a choice — I have to start branching out.”

“The Elegant Science of a Memory” opens with a reception tomorrow, Tuesday, Aug. 7 from 7-10 pm at LITM, 140 Newark Ave. The show runs through the end of August. For more information, visit kaythester.com.

Melissa Surach contributed to this story.

Photos courtesy of Kayt Hester

a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.

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