‘Steven and William Ladd: Lead With a Laugh’ opens at Sarasota Art Museum
If you meet and talk to artists and brothers Steven and William Ladd, you’ll understand why it makes sense that their new exhibition at the Sarasota Art Museum is titled Lead with a laugh. In a freewheeling Zoom interview before the show opened, the Ladds joked about everything from a “self-portrait” a long time ago of one of them as star wars‘ Princess Leia putting together puzzles with their grandfather during a recent extended family vacation.
Growing up in St. Louis, the two were always exposed to the arts. But aside from a high school ceramics class they shared, the duo, born a year apart in the late 1970s, only began collaborating as professional artists at the 20 years old.
“I was traveling for work and always took a lot of pearls with me,” says William, who currently prefers long hair and a beard. (Steven’s hair is shorter.) “I could work with them on the plane,” William says. “And I really got into making these intricately beaded handbags and wall hangings.” Meanwhile, Steven was making handcrafted books and boxes containing what he calls “wanted items.”
Coming from the world of fashion and accessories, the brothers made the leap to the fine arts when one of their handbags was chosen for a retrospective at the Louvre Museum of Decorative Arts. More than just beautiful bags, their designs began to tell stories for them, and soon they were displaying their embellished sculptures at venues such as the Parrish Art Museum in New York, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, all while working in New York.
The exhibit at the Sarasota Museum of Art includes nearly 500 works of art, objects and ephemera, including never-before-seen landscapes and beadwork, with content often drawn from the brothers’ shared memories and experiences. Their new piece, Welcome to Santo Poco!celebrates the acquisition of a new property in upstate New York and features 12 beaded landscapes in an array of colors, serving as the focal point in the museum’s third floor gallery.
“You will be able to see earlier works and more recent works, to get an idea of how things have evolved,” says Emory Conetta, assistant curator at the museum. In addition to landscapes, the Ladds also dabbled in figurative work, drawing inspiration from old family photos to create intense portraits using a lavish amount of beadwork.
But the museum exhibit is by no means entirely devoted to the Ladds. A significant part of their art practice over the past 16 years has been what they call the “Scrollathon,” which involves participants from diverse backgrounds in diverse communities creating their own work of art.
As the brothers explain, the Scrollathon takes place in three stages. First, participants make small circular scrolls using colored paper that contain anything they want – their story, personal or not, with a title and narrative. People also talk about what they’ve composed, sharing that story out loud. Then, over a period of about a month, they work with the brothers to create a 9ft by 9ft assemblage that contains all of the small, signed scrolls. Finally, portraits are created of all the artists in the community for a photo mural that will also be exhibited. (The Ladds’ work is on view through Sunday, February 5. The Scrollathon portion of the exhibit opens Sunday, October 16.)
In Sarasota, the museum worked to involve schools, nursing homes and nonprofits in the Scrollathon project, recruiting about 20 groups and 500 community artists. It’s a process that Virginia Shearer, the museum’s executive director, first saw at work years ago in Atlanta, when a new stadium was being built in what had been a historically black neighborhood. The stadium was well received in some ways, Shearer says, but there was also a recognition that “we needed to do art projects that represented this black community. So we collaborated with the Ladds on a piece of art that would be on permanent display at the stadium.
Later, while Shearer worked at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, she revisited what a “powerful experience” the Scrollathon could be, when the Georgia Alzheimer’s Association, Boys & Girls Clubs, the juvenile justice system and other groups have been integrated into the Scrollathon. treat. She sees the Sarasota Scrollathon as an example of what the museum can and should do for our community.
The Sarasota Scrollathon will eventually expand beyond local borders. Current plans call for the project to become Florida’s representation in a 2026 exposition (possibly in our nation’s capital) that celebrates the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. When all the Scrollathons come together for this, more than 30,000 people will have been involved.
Steven and William Ladd: directing while laughing will be on display through Sunday, February 5 at the Sarasota Museum of Art, 1001 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. The Scrollathon portion of the show opens Sunday, October 16. For more information, call (941) 309-4300 or visit sarasotaartmuseum.org.