Statues of a life-size ostrich, a flying pterodactyl, and a graceful crane greet visitors as they enter the Randolph Library in the Heights.
Take a closer look and you will see these are sculptures made of masking tape by resident security guard, James Harton.
Harton began working at the Memphis Public Library as a security guard at the Randolph branch in 2010. Two years later, he made a small duck out of masking tape. A coworker asked him if she could have it—she later asked him to paint it.
The duck began getting attention, and another person asked if they could buy a piece. At first Harton was reluctant to charge, but when he kept getting requests he started selling some items.
On a trip to Michaels craft store in 2013, he struck up a conversation with a fellow shopper. Harton said he was initially ashamed to admit his work was made of tape. But when he showed her some photos from his phone, she invited him to showcase his work at the Desoto Arts Council.
“When I went out there, I couldn’t believe it because they had it up on a podium and had the cloth draped down,” Harton said. “My animals were up there [with] the lights cascading down and it looked so beautiful. And I walked out with $500.”
Expanding the Vision
Harton sold more work on consignment through the Desoto Arts Council. As sales continued, he decided he would rather be his own marketer. He made cards, flyers, and a website to promote his art. He named his collective work “Masking Tape Treasures.”
He also got more active on social media and began to participate in pop-up events. His work has been displayed at art shows as far away as Colorado, Cincinnati, and Atlanta.
Harton remembers drawing and painting when he was younger.
“I think my first show was when my mother put a sailboat on the refrigerator. It was a watercolor and I got a lot of praise for it,” he said.
But he also remembers that he stopped making art due to peer pressure, and switched to sports. He came back to his love of creating, working with molding clay for fun in the 1990s.
Harton started to teach others his craft through community classes at the library. The Parkway Village branch hosted the first session, but most were held at Randolph, his home branch.
“My first class was with seniors. It went off well and everyone made giraffes. And today some of them still have them. It was beautiful,” he said.
Memphis Public Libraries canceled all in-person classes for many months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Harton started leading a virtual “Painting with James” class, but he hopes to be able to return to more in-person community courses in the near future.
“One day this lady said, ‘I can not do nothing, I tried and I can’t do anything’. I said, ‘I can show you’. We had a class in here and I taught her how to make a ladybug,” said Harton.
“She was so proud of it. And that’s what keeps me going. People doubt their own self and I can bring that out of them.”
Sticking With It
Some of Harton’s pieces have been used in displays at multiple Memphis branches over the years, including Hollywood, South, Levi, Cordova, and Parkway Village. Harton said he wants his works to help promote learning and reading.
“I will put my work on top [of the shelves] so that kids will look at it and want to learn about a certain animal,” he said. “They take the book and then read it. That would help kids to read instead of just playing games on the computer.”
"Bobby and Bella and Benjamin," by artist James Harton. (submitted)
His favorite piece is a family of humans called “Bobby and Bella and Benjamin” that are almost life-size. Right now they are stored in the basement of the Randolph branch, along with other large or seasonal pieces.
Harton has a special love of making birds, and he noted that elephants are one of the most frequently requested commissions. Because his pieces greatly range in size, they can take anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours to create.
He can’t help sharing his passion for creativity, whether it’s in person or virtually.
“The kids keep me doing this. When people say ‘I’ve got all thumbs and I'm not an artist, I can’t do this,’ I say, ‘Give me one hour and I can teach you how to paint anything, how to make something.”