Artists Steven and William Ladd’s Unique Path to Success
Posted Sunday, January 29, 2012 11:52 AM
Steven and William Ladd have not taken the ordinary path to success as artists. In fact, their crossover from design and couture into the creation of art objects has happened naturally as a kind of logical step in their collaboration. Their predilection for sewing and beadwork has led them to develop a 10-year partnership that has become an approach to art and design that is firmly rooted in their shared experiences and memories. It is this element, the grounding of each work in a story or significant moment in their lives that has given their work its conceptual underpinnings. It is a rare thing indeed for brothers to cooperate and to support one another in the way that Steven and William Ladd do. One is tempted to tease apart their respective roles in the conception and production of a work of art, and while we know that Steven is responsible for the sewing and William for the beadwork, it is difficult to see the voice of two different men in any of their pieces. It seems as if the Ladd brothers are so in sync in their thinking and in artistic intention, that what they produce is the fruit of a kind of single-mindedness that is as endearing as it is surprising.
Their art is so wholly personal, and so deeply grounded in their shared life experience, that one wonders whether their collaboration is not just a kind of brotherly amusement in which they reminisce about growing up. It is only fortunate for us, that the Ladd brothers' appreciation for the minutiae of life and their sense of almost ritualistic organization of found objects and memories turns into such beauty at their hand. Perhaps the only thing more delightful and magnetic than the objects they create is the Ladd Brothers themselves whose approach to creation at times includes drawing, sculpture, industrial design, bookmaking, and performance.
Though they grew up in St. Louis and spent years pursuing different paths in life, Steven and William now share a studio in Brooklyn, just a stone’s throw from the Williamsburg Bridge. The brothers maintain separate workspaces, joined by a kind of showroom space, which is large enough to not only display several pieces at once, but to seat visitors and collectors should the occasion arise. Because the Ladd brothers have decided to forego the traditional gallery-representation model of the art world, they sell their own work. Accessories, lamps and even furniture can all be bought through their website (www.stevenandwilliam.com), keeping their studio fairly brimming with ongoing art and design projects.
It is the negotiation between the creation of art and design that makes the Ladd brothers’ work so unusual. On the afternoon that I visited their studio, a triptych was laid out on the floor, which is to say, three sets of boxes were un-stacked and formed into a grid. The three works, Ant Infestation (2009), Stack Infection (2009), and Stairway to Heaven (2010), can be stacked together and, because they are housed in the same ivory-colored fabric, stand tall as a kind of minimalist architectural object.
When the pieces are unstacked, however, the works take on distinctly different aesthetics and narratives. Each box reveals a delicate world formed of fabric and beadwork. In Ant Infestation, twenty-four boxes join to form a single landscape of black ants marching through a stylized ecosystem of green-beaded vegetation. In Stack Infection, each box actually takes on an additional phase, as the landscapes of stacked fabric hinge open to reveal another world of dark holes lined with beadwork that appears as if crystallized around the edge. The interplay between figuration and narrative on the one hand, and minimalist design on the other, is the startling originality of Steven and William’s work.
Recalling their own childhood memories and formed by craft-skills that are nothing if not unusual among men of their age, the art and design objects that are being produced by the Ladd brothers today are so organically rooted in who they are, that there can be no mistaking the uniqueness of their work. For them, memories, like materials, are to be recycled and reworked, always in favor of creating something new and advancing in new directions.
It is clear that the brothers have a philosophy of life that holds up as important that which has formed us and become a part of us and will continue with us in some capacity as we move on into the future. Perhaps this goes a long way toward explaining how they have managed to move through life together as brothers, collaborators and partners, always with a remembrance of where they came from, but with a fearless desire to enter new territory.
Just a year after their first solo museum exhibition at The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, Steven and William Ladd are busy. In addition to the work that they produce together, the brothers are devoted educators who preach the gospel of collaboration and creativity. Working with their sister Bee who teaches visual and media arts in a New York City public school, they devised a project called the Heart Scrollathon. Revitalizing scrap fabrics in pinks, purples and reds, the entire student body of P.S. 58, a middle school in Brooklyn, contributed to the production of scrolls (a frequent theme in the Ladd brothers’ work) taking as inspiration the word ‘heart.’ Students were photographed along with their scroll, and Steven has documented the project in a hand-bound book.
Process, stages and materials are at the basis of the Ladd brothers’ production. Conceptually rooted in memories and experience, pieces are formed of materials that seem to find their way into their lives. Working with fabrics that have been found or donated and a virtually tireless supply of clasps, belt buckles and the like from the basement of a nearby defunct factory, Steven and William seem determined to incorporate whatever materials are at their disposal into their work.
What is perhaps unexpected of two artists who invest themselves in such idiosyncratic work, is the ability to share their world and their memories so easily with their audience. It is no accident that Steven and William Ladd are grabbing the attention of not only museums, but of a loyal collector base, who no doubt delight in sharing an appreciation for craftsmanship, but also an enthusiasm for life that is infectious. In a city where people have learned to give strangers as wide a berth as possible, Steven and William are insistent huggers. It is with this warmth that they approach their work and their lives, and it is a quality that is making them very sought-after indeed.
Eric Russ is Highbrow Magazine’s art critic.