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Nine Years, Eight Jails, and an Astounding Incarceration Art Exhibit Later

The Ladd brothers, Steven and William, have been creating art together ever since William left Missouri for New York in ‘98 and not long after did Steven join him. Steven and William are well-known for their uplifting initiative Scrollathon, where the brothers engage in programs across the country with underrepresented communities to share their experiences and collaborate in creative work with others. Participants get the opportunity to create their own scrolls with recycled fabric trimmings where they title one to keep, and contribute another for a collaborative work of art. Their reputation would soon lead to a nine year project on their experience observing incarceration.

Photo: Simon Courchel/The Invisible Dog

The brothers define value by doing what you love, staying focused and disciplined, and collaborating. They create welcoming environments for those communities whether that be students, neighbors, or inmates to explore the art world with working professionals on projects that everyone can be successful at. Over the past nine years, Steven and William have worked with over 500 inmates across eight New York correctional facilities to cohesively bring to life their newest exhibition, “The Other Side.”

500+ Inmates across eight New York correctional facilities

Located at The Invisible Dog in Brooklyn, the space was formerly home to an old belt factory. The Ladd’s have had a relationship with the space owner, Lucien Zayan, dating 12 years prior and they even commissioned a permanent chandelier in the building featuring extensive beadwork and trimmings in its design. The building’s history fortuitously matches the brothers mission in using recycled materials as pieces of the exhibit even utilize the resources that were left in the basement of the center from its more industrial days. You could almost say the space didn’t even need a belt for the exhibition to be the perfect fit!

Lucien Zayan, Courtesy of Gabriela Fotografíaa

Understanding Incarceration

Beginning in 2012, the duo started at Rikers Island Robert N. Davoren Complex working with male adolescents ranging from 16-18 years old. This was the first time the brothers had to consider their materials as potential weapons. The jails restrictions denied certain materials whether that be too long of fabric trimmings or specific colors that had gang affiliation, so the brothers had to deal with major modifications to get these inmates the necessary resources to make their scrolls. For clarification, jail differs from prison; The inmates that they worked with were either charged and awaiting sentence/trial but haven’t been granted or cannot afford bail, convicted and sentenced to one year or less, or those already convicted whom would soon be transferred to a prison.

Courtesy of Gabriela Fotografíaa

For the next eight years, the brothers worked in collaboration with inmates varying in age, gender, and identity across Rose M. Singer Center, Manhattan Detention Complex, George R. Vierno Center, Otis Bantum Correctional Center, North Infirmary Command, and Anna M. Kross Center. Each year the brothers were able to sit down with the inmates and make scrolls towards their communal project. The brothers formed relationships with the people they interacted with whether that be the inmates or the guards. Inmates even expressed their gratitude towards the Ladds as they were unaccustomed to receiving the caring questions in which the brothers proposed such as “what are your dreams?” and “how can you get there?”

Collaboration Amongst COVID-19

The final collaborative project with over 500 people, inmates and the outside community included, had to take a last minute change in direction due to the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, the brothers were no longer able to enter into the jails and work face to face with the inmates they had already been collaborating with. Prior to the pandemic the brothers had a discussion with their collaborators on a future exhibit. One suggested the idea of recreating a jail cell as they actually entered and measured out a cell. The idea stuck as the original rendering filled the entire interior of the cell with scrolls made by both the brothers and inmates, but with no contact allowed, the idea got reinvented. However, the floor still incorporates the original idea including the scrolls.

Photo: Steven and William Ladd

This piece now stands as one of the most significant installations in the exhibit as the brothers decided to involve the outside community as well. Steven and William put together a packet and sent it out to community members along with the inmates that prompted the question “What does incarceration mean to you?” The outcome was moving.

“What does incarceration mean to you?”

Hundreds of responses led to the creation of a grey, brick-like exterior that opened up to an epic display of answers to the prompt lining the interior. Upon entry, the power of the question reverberates as answers dart out like “bullshit, fear, (in)justice, America.”

Photo: Simon Courchel/The Invisible Dog
Photo: Simon Courchel/The Invisible Dog
Photo: Simon Courchel/The Invisible Dog

When asked about the juxtaposition of the cell’s dark exterior to the colorful and vibrant interior, the brothers shared that it was at the inmates suggestion to do the words in color. Once again the brothers create a metaphor for the outside world looking in. No one truly knows what incarceration is until you live it. It redefines freedom and the brothers only got a taste of it as they were able to leave after their visits while the inmates didn’t have that luxury.

Incarceration Exhibition Highlights

One highlight of the exhibit belongs to the story that created the “crown scroll stools.” Inspired by the hierarchy that the brothers witnessed during one of their visits between a group of 19-21 year olds, the inmates sat on stools but stacked the stools for one particular inmate who “ran” the unit and got to sit higher than the rest. The stools speak to the inescapable idea of hierarchy. You can be in jail and shit still stays hierarchal. “No matter the community you came from, it’s still there” said Steven Ladd. Hierarchy plays not only into society but into the art industry itself. The culture of the industry has faced monetization for decades and “hopefully now…in the world we’re living in today…people are starting to feel…the equality of it all, hopefully more than they have in the past,” said William.

Photo: Steven and William Ladd

The exhibit additionally features a commentary on anonymity and identity. Inmates weren’t allowed to share their names as they associate themselves by number and some had intense stories they chose to share. The brothers decided on 12 vivid memories from their experience and refined them into a singular word that birthed a unique, provoking posture. They then painted this posture, “caught” in the canvas. In contradicting fashion to the artists’ very open, expressive personas, they were able to produce masterful pieces “that communicated something but didn’t reveal the [whole] story,” mentioned Steven. It stands for a very poetic way identity is dealt with in the system. William expanded on the anonymity of the inmates as normally in their Scrollathon projects the contributors work on an independent scroll, a collaborative piece, and then photos are taken of everyone involved, however, in this instance cameras weren’t allowed in the jails and identities were kept hidden.

Consider Incarceration for Yourself

The encompassing message of their installation was to inspire conversation. Get those not just inside these systems to consider what incarceration really means to them, but those outside. Visitors are even asked to interact with the exhibit and write their answers on a community board so the brothers can later add to their already abundant 500+ responses. “We were really interested in how our community can kind of start talking about that and thinking about that, and hopefully, thinking about it in a new way,” said William.

Courtesy of Gabriela Fotografíaa

This installation was just another on the totem pole for the brothers in creating an environment based on relationships and creating emotional bonds towards people whether it be students, community members, or inmates. It’s the building of “relationships and creating these emotional bonds with people, it’s what life’s all about really for us,” said Steven.

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