Brothers William and Steven Ladd lowered their voices inside one of the Parrish Art Museum galleries, focusing the attention of a dozen high school students gathered around them. They crowded in even closer, their attention piqued.“Today, we’re all going to make a work of art,” Steven nearly whispered, brimming with enthusiasm. “We’re all going to make what we call a scroll.”
He threw open his arms to the tightly wound, secured pieces of fabric pinned and beaded into landscapes hanging around the gallery’s perimeter, as his captive audience of two Life Skills classes from Southampton High School let out a simultaneously surprised breath.
“It’s probably going to be some of the favorite scrolls I’ve ever seen made, just watching you guys scroll,” he said, William nodding.
Trevor Dillon shot up his hand and, without waiting to be called on, announced matter-of-factly, “But teenagers and high school people don’t make those anymore. Art.”
The brothers’ faces fell.
“What?!” Steven exclaimed, while William shook his cheeks like a cartoon character and rubbed his eyes. “Well, that’s the problem with today’s art education system, darlin’.”
While the cheeky observation flew over the heads of the special needs students, their teachers smiled half-heartedly. Without missing a beat, 15-year-old George Delgado asked, “Do you guys sell these pieces?”
“Yes, we do,” William said, straight-faced, as his brother burst into laugher and added, “That is how we eat.”
Last week, the Ladd brothers’ voyage from their homes in Brooklyn to the East End wasn’t geared toward their collectors and buyers. They were there to work with their first batch of local students—by winter’s end, more than 1,000 will participate in their unique social project called a “Scrollathon,” where communities of all ages and social backgrounds create original works of art while absorbing the Ladds’ major themes of collaboration and sustainability.
The scrolls themselves are made from found materials—a fraction of the 200,000 tons of textile waste discarded by New Yorkers annually—and, once rolled by the students, will create the brothers’ largest scroll landscape to date, instead of ending up in a once-destined dump.
“It must have been 10 years ago. We had the materials and we were trying to figure out something to do with them,” Steve said of the leftover trimmings from their earlier work in fashion and design, melded with fine art and craft. “We knew we didn’t want to throw them away. I just rolled this scroll in the back seat of a car on our way to the Catskills for a camping trip, and I was, like, ‘Ooh, that’s pretty. I like that.’ And then we started singing, ‘Scrolling, scrolling!’ That was it.”
“And we’re still singing,” William said.
The brothers are often mistaken for twins—though 36-year-old Steven Ladd is clean-cut and clean-shaven, living in Brooklyn with his boyfriend, while his 37-year-old brother, who is married with a 5-year-old son just three doors down, wears a scruffy beard and ties his shoulder-length hair into a ponytail. They grew up in a very close family and were constantly together, making up games and singing songs.
“I’m not sure we were artistic, really—were we, Billy?” Steven said. “I would say we were theatrical.”
“Steve’s a little theatrical,” William smirked.
Countless childhood memories inspired their most recent exhibition, “Mary Queen of the Universe”—named after their Catholic elementary school in St. Louis, Illinois—that features a collection of crafted sculpture, drawings and prints by the fraternal team, brimming with tales begging to be told.
“When we were little,” William said to the students, “we pulled out a Lego box from underneath our beds and opened it up, and thousands and thousands and thousands of black ants poured out of our box.”
“Millions of black carpenter ants,” Steven chimed in.
“So in here, we decided to infest this whole other gallery with printed ants,” William said, looking up at the walls covered in more than 150,000 ant stickers.
A voice piped up from the floor of seated students, interrupting their story. “Where are the antennas?” 16-year-old Justin Brown asked, unconvinced. “They look like horses shrunk down to the size of fleas.”
“That’s actually a very good observation,” William said. “When Steve and I get together to make art, for us, it’s just our imagination. It’s not an exact replica of what an ant is to us.”
“Ah, ah,” Justin said. “So you’re imagining what an ant might look like, even though you can’t quite see its antennas.”
“You’re hired,” Steven said. “You can start doing these tours. I’m just going to sit down.”
“Me?” the boy asked. “No, no. I’m just a consultant.”
“Fair enough,” William nodded, before buckling into giggles with his brother.
The brothers ushered the students into the next gallery, where the scroll landscapes hang, and their humble, raw beginnings—different colored trimmings—were piled on the floor. In a single-file line, the children selected two hues and sat down in three rows.
They were ready to scroll.
“We are going to take the end, bending it over, and slowly roll,” William instructed.
“We’re scrolling,” Steven said.
“We’re scrolling,” William added, with a different emphasis, launching them into their upbeat, repetitive “scrolling” song.
“What are we doing?” Steven paused.
“We’re scrolling!” the students responded.
They repeated the process with the second trimming, and the artists circulated among the students, pinning their scrolls while asking for a title. They ranged from “The Hulk,” “Swirl” and “Butterfly” to “The Funky Wave,” “Kermit the Frog” and “1960s TV Dinner”—by smart aleck Justin, not surprisingly.
“1960s TV Dinner,” he said in a voice fit for an infomercial, before rattling off, “Freshly cooked seasoned turkey, hot buttery mashed po’taters, stuffing and freshly steamed carrots, all yours for $4.95, plus $3.99 shipping and handling.”
The Ladd brothers threw their hands over their heads and cheered. “Hoo-ya!” Steve said.
“I love my job,” William shook his head. “Hot diggity dog! That’s the best title I’ve ever heard.”
Now that the students’ practice scrolls were completed, they each rolled a purple scroll, contributing to what will be a 61-inch-by-42-inch landscape by the end of the Scrollathon. It is the first of its kind in this program, the brothers explained, to be supplemented by a documentary and a mural of the children’s portraits, which the Ladds shot down the hall, as well as a short clip of each student with his or her scroll.
The majority of the children lit up in front of the camera without much encouragement. But when it was Mary Romono’s turn, the 19-year-old girl, who has Down syndrome, was reluctant to leave her seat.
“Uh oh,” William said. “Are you the troublemaker of the group? Troublemaker …”
“Troublemaker!” Steve said, egging on his brother. “Uh oh!”
Mary blushed, shuffling her way toward the artists. “Oh, don’t be shy,” William cooed. “Let me tell you about this. This is a totally safe environment. There is no reason for you to be nervous. Steven’s sitting right there on that stool, with his arms open, ready to give you one of the biggest hugs you’ve ever been given in your whole entire life.”
She slipped into Steven’s arms, and he embraced her for a few seconds before trading spots, bathing her in the spotlights.
“Good hug, wasn’t it?” William asked.
“Mmhm,” she smiled.
“And you look absolutely stunning,” he continued flirtatiously. “So I’ve probably seen you on ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ I’m pretty sure.”
“So was that you? Were you on that show? Because I’m pretty sure you look like you were on that show,” Steven said.
Mary smiled, despite her nerves, as William snapped a few frames. “You nailed it,” he said. “You’re already halfway done. How awesome is that? Now, you’re going to hold up your scroll and say, ‘The name of my scroll is …’”
She concentrated, slurring her first two words before exclaiming, “Hot dog!”
“What kind of hot dog?” Steve wondered.
“Cotton candy,” she annunciated.
“Doggy! I love sugar and hot dogs, that’s for sure,” William said with a Southern twang while he did a country jig.
“Woo, woo!” his brother yelled.
“Okay, two more times,” William said. On the final take, Mary announced the title and spontaneously burst into song—taking the brothers physically aback. When she finished, they burst into laughter and applause.
“‘I’m nervous, I’m nervous, I’m shyyyyy,’” William sing-songed, teasing Mary as he pulled her into a one-armed embrace. “Nice try. Maybe you just wanted a hug from Steve.”
She returned to her seat, her classmates rubbing her shoulders as she grinned.
And in that moment, it was hard to tell who look more pleased—Mary, or the Ladd brothers.
For more information about the exhibition “Mary Queen of the Universe,” currently on view through January 19 at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, and the Ladd brothers, call (631) 283-2118, or visit stevenandwilliam.com.