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Visual Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2022 1 week ago

Brothers instill love, family memories into art exhibit at Sarasota Art Museum

Steven and William Ladd spend their lives doing what they love, and they make sure their artwork reflects that.
by: Spencer Fordin A+E Editor

A conversation with artist brothers Steven and William Ladd is a window into their creative process. They’re spitting out ideas in rapid-fire bursts and finishing each other’s sentences, sometimes coloring in the gaps and sometimes contradicting each other.

They’re laughing, hamming it up, and being as open as they can be.

And when it’s over, they ask for a hug.

The Ladd brothers, separated by one year in age, began collaborating together in a high school ceramics lab and they’ve never really stopped. Their new exhibit at the Sarasota Art Museum, "Lead With a Laugh," represents the last decade of their work with textiles and beads.

There’s huge wall hangings of various shaded colorings, and a floor display that represents their property in upstate New York. Another wall display is a mock family tree with beaded portraits of their various family members, each representing about 60 hours of work.

One wall of the Ladd brothers' exhibit at the Sarasota Art Museum. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)

William Ladd, who does most of the constructing of the artworks, says that he wakes up at 5 am and works out before he heads to his studio. Then he works about eight hours at beading and weaving before he goes home; and ultimately he works even more once he gets there.

“I’ll work studio hours, then I go home,” he says. “Usually, I'm hanging out with my kids. I'm playing with them for a couple hours. And then when they're like, ‘OK, we've had enough, Dad,' I'll start working on beaded portraits. You make time for a little bit of everything.”

At root, the brothers say, they love what they do and so it doesn’t feel like work.

Their work ethic comes from their father, they say, who was a top electrician in St. Louis who worked 70 hours a week for most of their childhood. And it wasn’t just that; he worked with his brothers, providing a family template for William and Steven that lasts to this day.

Their mom, meanwhile, provided them and their two siblings with love and affection and nourishment. And that’s why much of their art is rooted in family nostalgia and sentimentality, but also with a biting sense of humor and an ear for subversion.

“Our mom and dad were like 20 and they had four kids,” says William, telling a long story about the green panel in a multi-colored wall display.

“We spent a lot of time at our grandparents. My grandfather was a baker and my grandmother would watch us. It was four of us. We would be running around and we'd be like ‘what's for dinner,’ and she'd be like ‘Poison.’ So we titled the green one ‘Poison’ after Grandma.”


Personal touch

Steven Ladd, older than William by one year, handles the business end of their art practice now, and he says their industry really began accidentally. They were working in the advertising business and living together in Bushwick, New York, and during their free time, they were making intricate accessories and handbags that took hundreds of hours apiece.

Up-close detail on a Ladd brothers wall panel. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)

And then, one day, when they were working as set assistants for a Neiman Marcus catalogue photo shoot, an executive saw their side work and asked to include it in the catalogue.

“The next day, we got incorporated as a handbag and accessory company,” says Steven Ladd. “That's the company we're still incorporated as today. That was January of 2000.”

Now, 20-plus years later, their lives have changed and so has their art. The Ladd brothers work together in their studio five days a week, and they work together at their property in upstate New York. It’s gotten to the point where they enlist student interns to help them in their artwork, and their parents and uncles and cousins have also spent time beading and weaving.

“Work for me, work for free,” jokes William of his family and friends assembly line. “You have to wait until they volunteer. If you draft them, people will start dodging that.”

One of their latest works, the representation of their property, began 7.5 years ago but never really took shape until recently.

William Ladd says he began weaving the trees at his son’s gymnastics lessons, and the next thing he knew he had a veritable forest.

Then, when the plans for the exhibit at Sarasota Art Museum came around, the brothers knew exactly how to use their trees. They’d use it to depict the place that inspires them.

This floor piece represents the brothers' property in upstate New York. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)

“We have this property in upstate New York called Santa Poco,” says Steven, hovering over the model. “We built a shed for me, one for William and one for my Mom and Dad. We're always kind of up there together hanging out and brainstorming and thinking. And we have two kind of distinct areas of the property; we have like a wood forest where we have those sheds. And then we have a like a creek bisecting the property, and then a whole hillside over here.”

The family tree project happened just as organically. William did a beaded portrait of his son Mateo about 3.5 years ago, and then he did one of himself. Soon after, he found himself doing a portrait of his wife and he figured he’d keep on going and do his entire family.

That extended family tree grew to 20 beaded portraits, all on display at "Lead With a Laugh."

William jokes that at the end of the project, when they were considering expanding the family tree to 25 frames, he had to prioritize whose face was worth spending 60 hours depicting.

“It’s better to do younger kids because their faces are smaller,” he says.

“But all the kids are grown now.”


The Ladd brothers stand amongst their family tree. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)


The Ladd family takeover of the Sarasota Art Museum will continue in October with an exhibit chronicling the history of the Scrollathon, an interactive art experience that has reached more than 10,000 artists nationwide.

That endeavor — which the brothers started 17 years ago in St. Louis — encourages people to make personal artistic statements and then weaves them together to tell a greater narrative.

The project started local, but now it has a national footprint, mirroring the brothers’ successful art trajectory. They’ve managed to show their work in galleries as far-flung as Hawaii and Sheboygan, Ill., and now they have the hard job of summing it all up.

“When the community comes here, they’re going to be able to walk through this whole exhibition and see this artwork before they go into the Scrollathon,” says Steven. “A lot of times when we're working with the communities that we work with on the Scrollathon, they don't necessarily have the sense that artists exhibiting in museums are actually alive.

"And they also don't think that the things they make can be exhibited in museums. So here they'll be able to experience the artwork we made, meet us and know that we're alive and not dead. And then also contribute to a collaborative master work that they helped to make.”


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Spencer Fordin, the Observer's A+E editor, hails from New York and graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1999. Fordin previously worked as a sportswriter for for 16 seasons and as a features reporter for The

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