Inquiring Minds: Anna Coleman Ladd and WWI Veterans

(The following is a story written by Megan Harris of the Veterans History Project and featured in the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.  ) 

Benjamin King portrays a soldier wearing a mask to cover a disfigurement. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Benjamin King portrays a soldier wearing a mask to cover a disfigurement. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Last month, eighth-graders Benjamin King, Maria Ellsworth and Cristina Escajadillo – all students at the Singapore American School – performed an original 10-minute play at the Library of Congress inspired by the institution’s collections and connections. Contemplating a distinctly somber topic — the mental and physical wounds wrought by World War I — the students highlighted the life and accomplishments of Anna Coleman Ladd, an artist and sculptor who created facial masks to help wounded soldiers cope with their injuries and reintegrate into civilian life after World War I.

Following their Library debut, the students performed as part of the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest, held June 14-18 at the University of Maryland.

King, Ellsworth and Escajadillo first learned about Ladd’s mask-making through their social studies teacher, National History Day ambassador Matthew D. Elms.

Though they knew very little about World War I, Ladd’s story appealed to them as a nontraditional example of “leadership and legacy,” this year’s National History Day theme. The students engaged with Kluge fellow Tara Tappert after viewing her Jan. 22 lecture, sponsored by the Veterans History Project and the John W. Kluge Center and taped by C-SPAN, which featured Veterans History Project collections from World War I.

To contextualize Ladd’s activities, Tappert introduced the students to Melissa Walker, an art therapist with the National Intrepid Center of Excellence who incorporates mask-making into her work with recent veterans who have experienced traumatic brain injury. Walker aided the students in connecting Ladd’s work to present-day art therapy applications.

Featuring an original script based on archival letters and photographs, creative lighting and set design, and hand-painted papier-mache masks, the students’ performance conveyed not only the historical significance of Ladd’s work but also the individual cost of war.

Anna Coleman Ladd touches up a mask she made for a wounded soldier in 1918. Prints and Photographs Division.

Anna Coleman Ladd touches up a mask she made for a wounded soldier in 1918. Prints and Photographs Division.

Born in Philadelphia in 1878, Anna Coleman Ladd was a classically trained sculptress who in 1917 founded the American Red Cross Studio for Portrait Masks in Paris.

Modeled on the work done in the “Tin Noses Shop” established by British sculptor Francis Derwent Wood, Ladd created over 100 masks for veterans who had sustained serious facial disfigurements during the war.

As the performance made clear, Ladd’s gentle and humane treatment of her patients, known as “mutiles,” and the masks she made for them, eased the psychological pain caused by physical wounds.

For these veterans, Ladd’s masks affected not only their self-perception but also society’s reaction to them. As the students proclaimed in their play, “While some artists made art to change how people saw the world, [Ladd] made art that changed how the world saw people.”

A selection of photos featuring Ladd and her work with World War I veterans is available in the Library of Congress online catalog at www.loc.gov/photos/?q=anna+coleman+ladd.

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