Rejection plays differently in your 30s, even if you’ve been moderately successful at your profession. Just ask London Ladd.
“Things have been pretty slow the past year,” says Ladd, 38, an illustrator with two children’s books under his belt. “I’ve been doing personal things, sending out submissions, getting feedback, getting rejection letters. It’s good motivation; it’s very humbling. You think you’re somebody with a couple of books, but if nobody will hire you, if you don’t get any awards or any recognition you keep falling by the wayside.”
So Ladd has hired an agent to try to find him more work. “I did some research about the pros and cons of hiring a rep. And given my situation, because I’m older and I have family obligations, sometimes I can’t always dedicate myself to finding work. I’m not saying that as an excuse; it’s just my reality.”
“Nothing is really a gift:” London Ladd makes adjustments in his studio (facing page) and talks about his process of illustrating a book about Oprah Winfrey at Barnes & Noble. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Another reality is that Ladd is breathtakingly talented, and diligent. His meticulous brushstrokes result from hours of tinkering, creating illustrations that jump off the page. A favorite subject is Satchel Paige, the Negro League pitcher, and himself. He points to a drawing hanging in his second-floor studio of a brooding young man, fists clenched, tenement behind him; the illustration bleeds gray and anger.
“That’s me,” he says. “I was so angry, just an angry youth. Now I’m a nice guy.”
Indeed, Syracuse University Bookstore keeps inviting Ladd under their big top to sign books during the Syracuse Arts & Crafts Festival. He will be there this Saturday, July 31, signing books and displaying his artwork. “We invite London every year,” says Leah Deyneka, academic support coordinator for the SU Bookstore, “because he’s one of our favorite people.”
A few hours spent with Ladd, who lives in the Valley with his wife Theresa Ladd, a Syracuse City School District music teacher, and their 15-year-old daughter Lavanda, an incoming sophomore at Corcoran High School, reveals a friendly man of remarkable candor. Ladd speaks bluntly of his rough childhood, his low self-esteem, his depression, his flunking out of SU, his battles with alcohol. It’s a story he shares with children during visits to area schools.
“The kids really connect to it,” he says, “especially in the city schools. But it’s funny—I went to a suburban school out in Liverpool and a country school in Onondaga—and I didn’t think my story could relate to them. But it did. It doesn’t matter about your background or where you live. It just boils down to persevering. Even if you come from a family that makes $100,000, you’ve still got to work and strive for your goals as much as the kid down here in the city, or out in the country. And I hope I plant seeds into these kids, and they can grow, and hope.”
The Illustrating Man
Ladd’s three major paid gigs all presented commonalities to his life: escaped slave of mixed race Jermain Loguen, who settled in Syracuse and played a big role in the Jerry Rescue; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I Have a Dream Speech” has become a civil rights touchstone; and Oprah Winfrey, the fabulously successful personality, who, like Ladd, was born poor into a single-parent household. His first job was to paint a mural of Loguen, under the auspices of a Cultural Resources Council project. “There was an open call for four murals in 2005, in different parts of Syracuse,” he notes. “I put together a small illustration, submitted it and I won.”
Located on the eastern side of the Richmark Carpet building on Cherry Street, the mural colorfully depicts Loguen, whose now-destroyed home was a stop on the Underground Railroad and who rose through the ranks of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to be appointed bishop in 1868. The city renamed Lexington Park (some call it Columbus Park), along East Genesee Street, Loguen Park in November 2007.
Freedom road: London Ladd’s mural of Jermain Loguen (second from left) celebrates the Underground Railroad and the Loguen family’s efforts to assist runaway slaves.
“We were just in that part of town,” Ladd says, “and you think back—it was a hot sunny week of doing that mural and the people coming up and talking and giving their stories and remembering the house before it was torn down, and kids coming up, curious. I knew of Loguen by studying him in college. He is somebody I admire and I jumped at the chance to paint a mural about him.”
Mark Wright, director of programs and services at the CRC, says Ladd’s idea best conveyed the theme for that particular neighborhood. “Jermain Loguen and his family were very important in the abolitionist movement,” Wright says, “and we really liked the approach Ladd took with that theme. It’s a beautiful mural.”
Ladd also works from time to time with the Creative Arts Academy, formerly known as the Kuumba Project, affiliated with the South Side Initiative, an SU-supported program. Children ages 11 to 13 audition for the arts education program and can remain enrolled through high school. Oftentimes, a child he has taught will reward Ladd with a drawing they created just for him, or a thank you note for his time. Some of his favorites hang on the wall of his studio.
“Not to say I’m the greatest,” he says, “but this kid wrote me a letter saying he was really moved by me. Or getting a gift from a child—like this one. A horse with a cupcake. It’s great. It’s beautiful. That’s why I put it up there. Those things motivate me as much as I motivate the kids. You know, I was that kid once.”
Hard to believe, but Winfrey struggled as a child herself, something Ladd can appreciate. “You have to find something within the story, like Oprah’s life story,” he explains. “I can relate to her story because she came from a poor background, grew up in a single-parent household and had to work her way up to where she is now.”
Ladd went on a mini-book signing tour this spring for Oprah: The Little Speaker (Marshall Cavendish Corp., Tarrytown; 32 pages/hardcover; $17.99), and met his public at Barnes & Noble in DeWitt. He’ll be signing that book during the Arts & Crafts Festival, on Saturday, July 31, from noon to 5 p.m. The tent will be located at East Jefferson and Montgomery streets, kitty-corner from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
“London has done events with us before, like children’s book week in October, where schoolchildren get to see how to get into illustration and what to do,” Deyneka says. “He’s done that with us at the Arts & Crafts Festival too, each of the last three years. Luckily, he’s had this book about Oprah come out, so the timing is perfect.”
Ladd’s other children’s book job was March On: The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World (Scholastic Press, 2008), about Dr. Martin Luther King. His inspiration came from a simple curiosity to go back in time and be with King during the tumultuous 1960s. “The King book, about his leading up to a big moment that changed a lot of lives and helped us to get to equality, to have the president we have. I would imagine myself wanting to be there. I’m hoping the next book—who knows what it is, but it’ll be something good, God willing—I’ll find a way to connect to it.”
Ladd and the Lord
Like his career, Ladd’s journey with God has taken years to develop. Now that he’s embraced his faith, it colors nearly every aspect of his life. Much of it, he admits, comes from a self-awareness and maturity that has slowly developed; no one gave it to him. “I had a tough upbringing: abuse, failure, a mixed-race child with a white teenaged mother and a father I never knew,” he says. “I failed out of school a couple of times, but I just kept going. People told me I couldn’t succeed in the art world. But I just kept going because this is my journey, not theirs.”
Still through the struggles and payoffs along the way, Ladd notes this has been his most difficult year to date. “It’s been a combination of everything. Being somebody of faith that I am, it’s funny to me how God knocks you back. This year I became very ill, lost a job, had a death in the family; my self-confidence was very low. I felt like I couldn’t draw or paint anything. I had addictions, things that were hindering me. And I got more into my faith to help me. There’s only so much my wife can say.”
As a result, Ladd and his family turned more to their church family at Abundant Life Christian Center in Cicero, known as the church with the purple roof. “We’ve been going off and on to different churches for years,” Ladd says. “For the past few years, we’ve been going to Abundant Life, and it’s really great there. I knew there was a concept of God but I didn’t know how to connect. At Abundant Life I just feel His presence.”
While this story still is in search of its happy ending, Ladd is more content with his life than at any time before. “I’ve struggled. My wife and I have struggled. But we have succeeded.” Part of Ladd’s drive is knowing where he came from, and how hard he’s worked to move beyond that. “I grew up in a single-parent household and I had to make this situation work,” he says of his 15-year marriage. “I didn’t want my daughter growing up in the same situation. I wanted to show her it can be done, that we can do it as a family.”
Indeed, the Ladds both graduated from SU, but not at the same time. London worked for SU Parking Services while Theresa used his benefit of free credit hours to complete her master’s degree. “So that job was a godsend,” he says. Then once she got settled into a job at McKinley-Brighton Elementary School, it was his turn.
“I had to reapply because I had been kicked out and was almost a brand-new student,” he admits. “I had grown up a lot. I was a whole different person than the last time I had been at SU. It was reflected in my art, reflected in who I was. I had never been a parent, so now I had to raise a child. I had never been a husband before, so I had to learn how to get along and make things work.
“It was great and it was weird being the old guy in the class sometimes,” he continues, “but it also was really rewarding because it was something not to take for granted. You show up on time, you do the work the instructor asks you to do—those are the things I didn’t do when I was younger.”
Ladd has developed a habit of rearranging and cleaning his studio after he completes a big project. “I didn’t have this much light for the Oprah book,” he says, gesturing to the full bank of windows behind him. “It was a terrible setup. It was cluttered and very congested, so I threw out a lot of things and rearranged it to where I can get a lot more of this beautiful sunlight. It really affects the painting; you can see every mistake.”
He is also discovering the joys of painting with oils rather than fast-drying acrylics. “With oil you can start over, it gives you another chance,” he says. Likewise, he realizes he much prefers baseball to football or basketball, the latter two sports played in a finite time frame within fields or stadiums identical to others. Baseball loves to take its time, it can truly go on forever, and no two fields are the same.
And with this emerged maturity, Ladd has come to make peace with his gift, knowing that constant work will only improve it. “I just want to get better, I always want to get better.” And that includes the often tedious process of envisioning a final product and then starting to get there with small sketches, experiments with color and light and finally putting brush to canvas.
“The fun part for me is the painting, but it takes a while to get to that point,” Ladd explains. “And that’s what kids don’t really understand. They think all of a sudden it’s there. So I take them through the process, I show them the sketch books, the little drawings, step by step. I tell them, ‘You don’t think LeBron James can just come out and dunk the ball, do you?’ Nothing is really a gift. We all have an ability. You just have to work at it a little bit more until you excel. If you really want to do something, work harder than you think anybody else is working.”