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From Chelsea to ‘Cardinal Nation,’ the Ladd brothers bring St. Louis childhood into works of art

Photo courtesy of the artists.© Steven and William Ladd, All rights Reserved, 2015.
Injury 1, 2015; paper, fiber, ink, paint, pencil, and metal trinkets, 18 x 24 x 1/8 inches.

When William and Steven Ladd were 15 years old, they could often be found in the Delmar Loop, buying beads and doing macramé. Though they now work out of a bustling studio in Chelsea, New York, the same childhood collaboration that could be found outside of Blueberry Hill is still at play in their works of contemporary art.

Credit Nick Lee, 2015
Ladd Brothers.

They’ve recently returned to St. Louis with a new exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum: Currents 111: Steven and William Ladd: Scouts or Sports? In the exhibition, they explore a turning point in their young lives in South County near Gravois and Mackenzie, when their mother told them they had to choose between Boy Scouts or sports. With four boys, it was getting too much to tote the children between all their various events.

On Friday’s “Cityscape,” host Steve Potters asked if that experience opened up psychological or emotional wounds.

“We are not that complicated,” William said. “We like to hug and laugh and we like to have fun. We described three values that we have in our life when [my brother and I] started working together: Spend life doing what you love, be focused and disciplined and collaborate.”

Simon Kelly, curator and head of the department of modern and contemporary art at SLAM, said their mostly fun-loving work (a sculptural mix of handmade fibers, paper, boxes, beading and textiles in concert with found pieces of artwork) is couched in serious organization.

“Steven and William are fun guys, but at the same time it is interesting to go to their studio in New York because they are really organized,” said Kelly. “Everything has its place. The focus and method they mentioned: it’s really there.”

Kelly also said that their contemporary work, which reaches into the field of fiber and found art is helping the museum to “broaden the idea of what we understand an artwork to be. An artwork is not just a conventional painting or sculpture.”

The Ladds’ St. Louis is everywhere in their current exhibition, which features 62 different pieces: “Cardinal Nation,” one of 12 major color-focused landscapes (inspired by artist Ellsworth Kelly) expresses the feeling of growing up in such a baseball-dominated town. “You can go to any other stadium and it is not nearly as cool as being a Cardinals fan,” said William.

Credit Courtesy Steven and William Ladd, All rights Reserved, 2015.
Cardinal Nation, 2015; paper, glue, wheat starch, metal beads, metal trinkets, glass beads, crystal beads, pins, screws, dye, mesh, staples, and wood, 59 ½ x 39 ½ x 1 inches.

“Injury 1,” which is a series of drawings was made in collaboration with master paper-makers in New York City, who made two pieces of specialty paper to between which to sandwich a piece of cloth from St. Louis. The cloth came from a girl in the neighborhood they grew up in (and where their parents still live), and it has been eaten away by insects. Those three pieces are scarred by pieces of metal schrapnel, symbolizing the wounds and injuries of life.

In the “Scouts” portion of the exhibit, William said they looked back on events with their father, like the Pinewood Derby. “Everyone thinks we chose scouts instead of sports because we are kind of crafty,” Steven added. “But, in fact, we did choose sports.”

Steven recalls a specific piece, “Layup” in which he explores a memory of doing layups in their driveway growing up and realizing he “looked like a gay man doing layups.” His brothers were watching him.

“I remember at that moment being like, ‘Oh my god, they know,” Steven said.

Poignant childhood memories such as these have fueled other exhibitions, including one specifically about their childhood home at “9679 Radio Drive,” which was an exhibition at the Contemporary Museum in Hawaii. Another, which caught Kelly’s eye at the Parish Art Museum in New York, was “Mary, Queen of the Universe:” reflections on going to grade school in the now-defunct Catholic School in Lemay.

"We have a very close family, we grew up in St. Louis and our whole family is here. Growing up, there was always this collaborative nature." - William Ladd

“We have a very close family, we grew up in St. Louis and our whole family is here,” William said. “Still, to this day, 30 members of our family get together. Growing up, there was always this collaborative nature.”

“Our father and all his brothers worked together, so we sort of had this reference for working together,” Steven added. “So when we moved to New York, it just became like ‘OK, we’re going to do something together but we’re not sure what it is going to be,’”

One year apart, the brothers are still collaborating but they take over very different parts of the artistic process. “Steve can sit and make an InDesign document and spreadsheet and organize every single work that we’ve ever done,” William said. “And I can sit in front of a loom and make a hand-beaded textile for 40 hours. Although we are working together on similar things, the things we do come together into this art form.”

You can see the fruit of that divergence, and collaboration, on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum now through February 14.

Related Event

What: Currents 111: Steven and William Ladd: Scouts or Sports?
When: October 23, 2015 - February 14, 2016
Where: Saint Louis Art Museum, Gallery 250; 1 Fine Arts Dr, St. Louis, MO 63110

More Information

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer, and Kelly Moffitt. The show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.    

Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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