If you meet and talk with artists and brothers Steven and William Ladd, you’ll see why it makes sense that their new exhibit 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 long-ago “self-portrait” of one of them as Star Wars’ Princess Leia to putting together jigsaw puzzles with their grandfather on a recent extended family vacation.
Growing up in St. Louis, the two were always exposed to the arts. But, other than a high school ceramics class they shared, the duo, born just a year apart in the late 1970s, didn’t start collaborating as professional artists until they were in their 20s.
“I was traveling for work, and I always carried a lot of beads with me,” says William, who currently favors long hair and a beard. (Steven’s hair is cropped shorter.) “I could work with them on the plane,” says William. “And I really got into making these intricately beaded handbags and wall hangs.” Steven, meanwhile, was making handcrafted books and boxes that contained what he calls “desired objects.”
From the world of fashion and accessories, the brothers made the leap into fine art when one of their handbags was chosen for a retrospective at the Louvre’s Museum of Decorative Arts. More than just beautiful bags, their creations began to tell stories for them, and soon they were presenting their embellished sculptures at such venues 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 Art Museum includes nearly 500 artworks, objects and ephemera, including never-before-seen beaded landscapes and drawings, with content often drawn from the brothers’ shared memories and experiences. Their newest piece, Welcome to Santo Poco!, celebrates the acquisition of a new property in upstate New York and features 12 beaded landscapes in a spectrum of colors, serving as the focal point in the museum’s third-floor gallery.
“You’ll get to see earlier works and more recent ones, to get a sense of how things have evolved,” says Emory Conetta, an assistant curator at the museum. In addition to landscapes, the Ladds have also moved into figurative work, drawing on old family photos to create intense portraits using a lavish amount of beads.
But the museum exhibit is by no means all about the Ladds. An important part of their artistic practice for the past 16 years has been what they call the “Scrollathon,” which involves participants from a wide range of backgrounds in various communities creating their own artwork.
As the brothers explain it, Scrollathon takes place in three steps. First, participants make small, circular scrolls using colored paper that contains anything they want—their story, personal or not, with a title and narrative. The people also talk about what they’ve composed, sharing that story aloud. Then, over a period of about a month, they work with the brothers to create a 9-by-9-foot assemblage that contains all of the small scrolls, signed. Finally, portraits are created of all the community artists for a photo mural that will also be on view. (The Ladds’ work is on view through Sunday, Feb. 5. The Scrollathon portion of the exhibit opens Sunday, Oct. 16.)
In Sarasota, the museum has been at work getting schools, retirement facilities and nonprofits involved in the Scrollathon project, recruiting about 20 groups and 500 community artists. It’s a process museum executive director Virginia Shearer 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 welcomed in some ways, says Shearer, but there was also a recognition that “we needed to do art projects that represented that Black community. So we collaborated with the Ladds on a work of art that would be permanently on display at the stadium.”
Later, while Shearer was working at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, she saw again what a “powerful experience” the Scrollathon could be, when the Georgia Alzheimer’s Association, Boys & Girls Clubs, the juvenile justice system and other groups were brought into the Scrollathon process. She sees Sarasota's Scrollathon as an example of what the museum can and should do for our community.
The Sarasota Scrollathon will eventually spread beyond local borders. Current plans call for the project to become Florida’s representation in a 2026 exhibit (perhaps in our nation’s capital) that celebrates the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. When all the Scrollathons are combined for that, more than 30,000 individuals will have been involved.
Steven and William Ladd: Lead With a Laugh will be on display through Sunday, Feb. 5, at the Sarasota Art Museum, 1001 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. The Scrollathon portion of the show opens Sunday, Oct. 16. For more info, call (941) 309-4300 or visit sarasotaartmuseum.org.