The following story was written by Megan Harris of the Library’s Veterans History Project and was featured in the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette. It also appeared on the Library of Congress blog under the title “Inquiring Minds: Anna Coleman Ladd and WWI Veterans.” It has been edited.
Last month Benjamin King, Maria Ellsworth and Cristina Escajadillo–eighth graders at the Singapore American School in Singapore–performed an original 10-minute play at the Library of Congress inspired by our 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.
King, Ellsworth and Escajadillo first learned about Ladd’s mask-making through their social studies teacher, National History Day ambassador Matthew D. Elms. 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.
Though the students 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 connected with the Kluge Center’s most recent David B. Larson Fellow in Health and Spirituality Tara Tappert after viewing her Jan. 22 lecture on the use of the arts to address war trauma, particularly the responses of artists to wounded veterans of World War I. The lecture was sponsored by the Kluge Center, Veterans History Project and the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, and was filmed by C-SPAN’s American History TV.
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 injuries. 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-mâché masks, the students’ performance conveyed not only the historical significance of Ladd’s work but also the individual costs of war.
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. As the students’ 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.”
§Watch: “Art from War: Documenting Devastation/Realizing Restoration,” a lecture by Tara Tappert, David B. Larson Fellow in Health and Spirituality at The John W. Kluge Center (Jan. 22, 2015).
§View: Photographs of Anna Coleman Ladd’s masks in the Library of Congress collections.