Midtown Renaissance man

Steve Ladin helps evolve the arts in Kingston

by Lynn Woods
August 12, 2010 12:09 PM | 1 1 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Steve Ladin and his omnipresent and manifestly friendly companion, Beckett.
Steve Ladin and his omnipresent and manifestly friendly companion, Beckett.
Steve Ladin is a ceramist, sculptor, painter, arts administrator and a Midtown pioneer.

In 2005, he transformed the ground floor of a brick industrial building on Furnace Street in Kingston into his home and workshop. He and his golden retriever, Beckett, are regulars in the Midtown neighborhood. A meadow-like garden planted along one side of his building is an oasis, attracting butterflies and a bountiful source of the herbs Ladin uses in his cooking.

Ladin’s investment in Kingston is not just a matter of bricks and mortar. He also has become a community mover, committed to promoting the arts and improving the quality of life in the city.

As administrator of the trolley museum for the past three years, Ladin has injected new life into the waterside institution, weaving the arts into its historical bailiwick. He has initiated an artist’s residency program. This summer’s artist, theater director Bruce Grund, produced a play in a New York City subway car. Ladin has commissioned a new trolley shelter by Saugerties sculptor Leslie Bryce, which was just recently installed on the grounds. As chair of the county trails advisory committee, he is also working to integrate trails along the trolley tracks at Kingston Point and elsewhere in the city. He is lobbying for more connectivity among the county’s rail-trails.

“I’m trying to build a new audience for the trolley museum,” he explained. “All of these not-for-profit organizations have to develop a model for the 21st century. The trolley museum won’t survive if we don’t bring in a fresh new audience.”

Despite his full plate, Ladin doesn’t neglect his art. He exhibits work in at least one show a year. An exhibition of his egg-tempera portraits and insect paintings is currently on view at DietzSpace, a gallery in Tribeca, through September 30. His small-scale portraits, including depictions of Mike Tyson, Brooke Shields and other celebrities, are conceived as icons which have been subtly altered, suggesting alien beings. His insect series consists of finely painted images of beetles, dragonflies and other exquisitely tiny creatures. When not working at the trolley museum or out walking Beckett, Ladin is likely to be at home painting, painstakingly affixing egg tempera, a medium in which powdered pigment is mixed with egg yolk, to small wood panels.

Ladin started his art career as a ceramist. The resident potter at Mohonk Mountain House from 1983 to 2008, he continues to maintain a studio there, visiting once or twice a week. He has made clay sculptures. A show of this large figurative work at Donskoj & Co. in 1995 introduced him to the Kingston community. Other of his work defies easy categorization. His 2008 banner project in Rosendale consisted of an 80-by-40-foot deconstructed American flag hung in sections from the railroad trestle in Rosendale.

Ladin has been a resident artist in the Wappingers Falls school system, conducting ceramics workshops for fifth graders. He has taught ceramics and design at Dutchess Community College and at local community arts centers.

Growing up in Brooklyn, it seemed Ladin was destined for a life centered around numbers, blueprints and suits: he loved math and entered City College as an architecture student. To fulfill his studio-art requirement, he took a ceramics course and got hooked. His instructor, Walter Yovaish, who had studied with former students at the Bauhaus, became an inspired mentor. It was also the 1960s, and the left-wing, progressive milieu of the fine arts department at the college was much more to Ladin’s liking than the pro-Vietnam-War, conservative orientation of the engineering school. After earning his bachelor’s degree in fine arts, he taught in the New York City school system, spent a year in Europe, and then got his master’s in ceramics at SUNY New Paltz, establishing himself as a studio potter in that college town.

His early studies in architectural design, however, were not without relevance. They deeply influenced his art. The work of Moshe Safdie, his hero in architecture school, has been particularly inspirational. “Safdie designed Habitat ‘67 at the World’s Fair in Montreal,” noted Ladin. “It was a modular structure, featuring apartment blocks constructed like a pueblo. Being modular, it could accommodate any site or slope, it could be expanded or contracted depending on the space. Even though every unit was the same, each was also different.” Safdie was influenced by a group of Japanese architects who called themselves Metabolists, which also have had an impact on Ladin’s ceramics and design work.

Just out of graduate school, Ladin published an article in Ceramics Monthly that explained his slip-cast technique, which consisted of using a series of molds to build his teapots, cups and other pieces. Fired in glossy earth colors, Ladin’s tea sets are both playful and architectonic, conceived as a skewed series of cubes or other geometric shape. And yet they are functional.

“Anybody can make a nonfunctional teapot,” he said. “But to make a truly unique teapot that functions is really a challenge.” Ladin did a whole series of award-winning dinnerware based on Metabolist design.

He followed up that work with ceramic pieces that one writer who collected his work described as “skewer morphs” — clay is disguised to resemble the forms and surfaces of rocks. Working against the naturally smooth properties of glazes, Ladin developed his own techniques to create rough textures. On one visit to his studio at Mohonk, a collector brought him a piece of rose granite and asked him to design a teapot incorporating the form. He began taking molds of the rock and experimented with the temperature and formulas of his glazes, eventually achieving the desired effect. On a shelf in his loft is a striking, free-form vase that looks like it was made from a piece of stiff, folded burlap — another example of Ladin’s ceramic innovation.

It was cutting-edge work, but “I barely made a living out of it,” Ladin said. He showed his pieces at craft fairs, taking wholesale orders from interested customers, and exhibited in galleries around the country. Ladin joined the Hudson Valley Crafts Coop in Poughkeepsie and started volunteering to hang exhibits. That led to a job as a grants administrator at the Dutchess County Arts Council, followed by stints organizing and designing exhibitions in alternative spaces, such as libraries and airports.

Throughout the 1990s, he was a production manager for the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Orchestra and technical director for the Bard Music Festival. In 1993, he was an arts-administration fellow in the research office of the National Endowment for the Arts. He curated the 2005 Kingston Sculpture Biennial, along with a show of artist-designed scale-model bus shelters and The Effigy Show, climaxing in the destruction of art works in a public bonfire. He founded a company, Artstream, which provides technical support to artists and arts organizations.

Meanwhile, Ladin continued making art. His growing interest in “symbols of the emerging modernist computer culture,” as he terms it, led to the casting of clay in tin cans, resulted in squeezed and twisted cups whose surface was inscribed with depictions of bar codes.

That was the beginning of his painting. In 1995, he received a fellowship to buy painting materials and spent the money on encaustics, a wax-based paint, which he then applied to his ceramic sculptures. He was awarded an artist’s residency at Utica-based Sculpture Space, where “I spent half my time doing sculptures and the other half painting.” It was totally figurative work. (Ladin continues to combine ceramics and painting. Hanging on a wall of his kitchen is a piece that resembles a flat stone, with a trompe l’oeil snake painted on the surface.)

His interest in the figure grew out of a fascination with genetic engineering. “No one had any answers. I was really grappling with ‘how far do you go’ and began doing ceramic sculptures of fetuses, based on what could go wrong.” He made “two-headed crucified infants,” which raised questions about the future role of religion. His first painting, a large-scale piece that hangs on the brick wall of his loft, is an abstract in subdued colors representing a sperm’s trajectory toward an egg. As always, Ladin was totally engaged by the process of making these large works, putting a layer of plaster over a plywood panel, then applying pigment sticks, and finishing with a glaze of beeswax.

His interest in egg tempera, which was inspired by medieval altar pieces, also has to do with process. “You work with powdered pigments mixed with egg yolk,” he said. “You paint on a prepared surface, which is a traditional gesso ground, using rabbit skin glue and whitening. You apply ten to twelve layers of this gesso to the wood panel, which is a major undertaking. But the effects are beautiful.”

As with the large-scale encaustics, Ladin initially painted disturbing images of androgynous, alien figures, at odds with egg tempera’s beautiful colors and surfaces. But a few years ago, wanting a break from such “heavy-duty” subjects, Ladin began painting insects. The images are meant to be purely beautiful, with the luminous, delicate color applied in layers and finished off with a layer of varnish, emphasizing the jewel-like quality of these creatures. He started with beetles, based on photographs, and eventually had enough pieces for a show at Donskoj & Co. in 2007.

Ladin said he loves living in Midtown, with its convenience to both Uptown and the Rondout, its plentiful parking and its neighborhood feel. Taking walks with Beckett has introduced him to dozens of people, which is an unexpected pleasure. “He’s very gregarious and introduces me to everybody.” The dog’s official title is public relations and marketing specialist.

Years ago Ladin “was all gung-ho about becoming a big name in the art world and having my work collected by museums.” But now he says he doesn’t care. At a certain point, he began “loving the arts-administration thing, of doing exhibit design and having other artists say, What a great job you did showing my work. I began realizing that there’s a whole other world out there besides your own work. Now when I find the time to do my own work, I do it for myself.”

Kingston fits right into his evolved vision of the perfect life. “I love being in a small-city environment. If I had a choice to live on a beautiful property surrounded by fields and woods, I would still take Kingston.”

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patti pearson
September 19, 2010
I went to college with Steve. Not only is he talented , he is one of the nicest people you coud ever want as a friend.

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