Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Anna Coleman Watts Ladd

Today Tuesday May 15, 2012 the AWOD is the portrait and architectural sculptor Anna Coleman Watts Ladd (1878 – June 3, 1939). Born Anna Coleman Watts in Philadelphia, Pa., raised in Paris and lived and studied in Rome for twelve years. She Founded the Studio for Portrait Masks in the American Red Cross in Paris during WWI, where she collaborated with surgeons to fit disfigured soldiers with sculpted faces.

Anna moved to Boston in 1905 when she married Dr. Maynard Ladd, and there studied with Bela Pratt for three years at the Boston Museum School. Her Triton Babies piece was shown at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. (It is now a fountain sculpture in the Boston Public Garden.) In 1916 she was a founder of the Guild of Boston Artists, where she held a one-woman show.

Toward the end of 1917, her husband had been appointed to direct the Children's Bureau of the American Red Cross in Toul and serve as its medical adviser in the dangerous French advance zones. That is where Anna discovered the work of Francis Derwent Wood. She was presented with the possibility of furthering the work begun by Wood through making masks for wounded soldiers in France.

When he was too old (at 41) to enlist in the Army at the onset of World War I, Wood volunteered in the hospital wards and his exposure to the gruesome injuries inflicted by the new war's weapons eventually led him to open a special clinic: the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department, located in the Third London General Hospital, Wandsworth. Instead of the rubber masks used conventionally, Wood constructed masks of thin metal, sculpted to match the portraits of the men in their pre-war normality. Anna was intrigued and wanted to put her talents to use helping the disfigured soldiers retain their dignity.

In late 1917, after consultation with Wood, now promoted to captain, Ladd opened the Studio for Portrait Masks in Paris, administered by the American Red Cross. "Mrs. Ladd is a little hard to handle as is so often the case with people of great talent," one colleague tactfully cautioned, but she seems to have run the studio with efficiency and verve.

The journey that led a soldier from the field or trench to Ladd's studio was lengthy, disjointed and full of dread. For many, it began with a horribly traumatic battle injury, stage by stage, from the mud of the trenches or field to first-aid station; to overstrained field hospital; to evacuation, whether to Paris, or, by way of a lurching passage across the Channel, to England, the wounded men were carried, jolted, shuffled and left unattended in long drafty corridors before coming to rest under the care of surgeons. Multiple operations inevitably followed. Once the physical injuries were healed, they were left less then whole. When there was nothing more the doctors could do, that is when they went to see Anna.

Groups of wounded soldiers began arriving at the artist’s studio on Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Moving haltingly and sometimes guided by helpers, they entered an attractive courtyard overgrown with ivy and peopled with statues, climbed five flights, and found themselves in a large room illuminated by tall windows and banks of skylights. Ladd and her four assistants had made a determined effort to create a cheery, welcoming space for her patients; the rooms were filled with flowers, the walls hung with posters of French and American flags and rows of plaster casts of masks in progress. They gave them dominoes and checkers to occupy them, refreshed them with chocolates and white wine, and offered them newspapers.

As the men laughed and smoked, Ladd examined them. She studied their shot-off jaws, missing noses, and scarred and empty eye sockets. Doctors could not restore these soldiers to handsomeness, or even to ordinariness. But as a sculptor, Ladd could apply talents that the doctors lacked. She could make new faces—masks—for the men, beautifully crafting them of copper, metallic foil, and paint. And wearing their prosthetic masks, the soldiers could return to the families, fiancées, and friends they had been afraid to allow in their unsightly presence.

The volunteer work of this intrepid artist has vanished from our memory of World War I. During the year and a half she spent directing the work of the Red Cross Studio for Portrait Masks—a division of the French Bureau for Reeducation of the Mutilated—Ladd saved nearly 100 French soldiers, as well as several of other nationalities and civilians, from the deep isolation of disfigurement.

Her services earned her the Légion d'Honneur Crois de Chevalier and the Serbian Order of Saint Sava. After World War I, she depicted a decayed corpse on a barbed wire fence for a war memorial commissioned by the Manchester-by-the-Sea American Legion. In 1936, Ladd retired with her husband to California, where she died in 1939.

Here is a silent film of Ladd working in her studio and fitting masks on soldiers.