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EXTREME NATURE: The Sculptures of Dan Ladd at Putney Library, Oct. 18

The Artsby Andrea Scheidler

On Wednesday, October 18th, a Putney sculptor will be the first of three artists to speak at the Putney Library’s annual artist series: Words and Images: Artists Talk About Their Work. As a member of the committee for this series, it was my task to solicit sculptor Dan Ladd as a speaker, and to become more familiar with techniques he has evolved through understanding how to manipulate living plants as a medium for artistic expression. As I spent time with Dan, I realized that this kind of sculpture can only be accomplished with prodigious patience, a unique vision and understanding of natural process.
If we slow down our daily lives we may discover new information and appreciation for the habits of living things. Natural behavior can begin to look like art and can cause us to think in new ways. I remember watching hornets chewing wood from the new pressure treated fire escape at the old Masonic Lodge in Putney. The chemical in the wood gave it a green caste, and the hornets built a rounded green nest the size of an over-inflated football with the paper they made from their little spitballs. The normal grey of the paper nest was thus modified by the ready availability of dyed commercial materials.

Poet, Robert Frost observed how ice storms and young tree climbers bend white birches left and right. Trees split rocks to reach the light or reach around them to anchor themselves in the soil. Ocean waves leave patterns in the sand. Climbing plants scale vertical surfaces by forcing screw-like tendrils in tiny crevices.

Twenty-five years ago, sculptor Dan Ladd reasoned that Lagenaria gourds would grow and swell their woody shells to fill a plaster mould. Once the vines died, the gourds could be dried in the moulds, and the molds carefully chipped away to reveal a sculpture formed by forces of nature and manipulated by a sculptor’s intervention in a natural process. The result would be smooth a wood-hard sculpture that never felt a chisel or blade.

When I visited Dan at his studio in the old Putney high school building on Kimball Hill, he took me to his workroom where white rows of thick plaster molds stood ready to receive delicate young gourd fruits. In storage nearby were amber brown sculptures formed in past seasons: human torsos, cars, twisted abstract forms. All the forms terminated at one end or another with the stem and neck of the gourd that grew to the limits of the plaster cast.

As a fellow artist I understand how one good discovery can lead to another. On the grounds of Ladd’s home and studio stand numerous other examples of his explorations into the growing habits and artistic possibilities of woody plants. Through a traditional grafting process called “pleaching”, Dan has bent and shaped living trees into geometric forms and architectural frames. We walked through his outdoor gallery of sculptures formed from living saplings. Apple trees had grown to form two inverted boat frames. They looked like dorys in dry dock. There were living cubes, trellises, arches. All the corners and joints of these sculptures have been made by encouraging the living wood to marry with a neighboring branch or trunk. The process takes Ladd many seasons and years to complete.

Dan also inserts objects into living trees. As many have observed, trees will surround barbed wire and old farm equipment, will send their roots into cracks in bridges and even between shingles. On the studio grounds are interesting sculptures where he has explored this ability. One tree has been encouraged to surround two bicycle rims and grows toward the clouds with a spoked “figure eight” in its middle. Two sycamores have been joined to surround an arched stone tablet. This is a slow art process and Ladd has commissions that will take him decades to accomplish.

Recently Dan has been using molds to ball, or bind the roots of trees into shapes. These may be harvested and dried, or knocked from the mold and transplanted so that the tree will have, for example, a trunk in the shape of a set of stairs.

Dan Ladd graduated from the School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He has been a speaker and a teacher at Carnegie Mellon College of Art, Pittsburg, PA, The Boston Landscape Architecture Society, and similar locations. His work is in the collection of the DeCordova Museum,and Dana Art Museum, Lincoln MA.

The Putney Library will host Dan Ladd’s presentation from 7:00 to 8:30 PM on Wednesday, October 18th. Other presenters in the series include sculptor Chuck Ginnever on November 9th , and painter Will Parmalee on November 16th.

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