As I arrive at Frank Ledbetter’s Theodore art gallery, I’m captivated by the massive stainless steel eagle standing out front. I’ve seen it before, sitting unfinished on a concrete floor amid the clutter of a working metal-art studio. Now, it perches majestically on a large puzzle-design ball atop its six-foot-tall stainless steel pedestal.
“Just think: A few weeks ago, that was a piece of 12-inch pipe and a few sheets of metal. The way it all came together – that’s cool.” Ledbetter laughs and adds, “I just wish I knew how I did it.”
New Orleans-area businessman Henry Shane commissioned the piece for a multi-artist public sculpture exhibit in the median of a busy Kenner, Louisiana, thoroughfare. The grouping represents another segment of the ambitious public art project he launched in 2009 with the now iconic George Rodrigue “Blue Dog” sculpture on Veterans Highway just down the road in Metairie.
Shane and Ledbetter first met about five years ago at an art show in Ocean Springs. “I bought small pieces of sculpture work from Frank. I have an art gallery on the third floor, and they’re all there, ” says Shane, whose large, art-filled home resembles an elegantly furnished museum. “Then he showed me sculptures that he had done in Destin and other places, and we decided to attempt something.”
ABOVE LEFT Ledbetter’s creation, “Drying and Dreaming.” Most of his public installations are inspired by nature and life on the water.
ABOVE RIGHT The sheer size and form of the massive eagle atop a puzzle-patterned globe makes a bold statement, but upon closer inspection, even the individual textured feather detail is impressive.
Ledbetter produced “Drying and Dreaming, ” which stands near the New Orleans Airport on Williams Boulevard. Three Loyola Drive sculptures quickly followed: “Pipe Dreams, ” “Kenner” and “Majestic” (the eagle).
Shane’s patronage has freed Ledbetter from “loading up the trailer and dragging it all over the country doing art shows.” He now spends that valuable time in the studio, actually creating art, a remarkable feat for a man who, a dozen years ago, hadn’t even considered sculpting. In fact, when he latched onto art in his early 50s, it was more as a lifeline than a creative outlet.
Ledbetter jumped straight from Mary G. Montgomery High School into the Marines. He next landed at International Paper just long enough to finance the 1976 launch of his fabrication company, Ledco. Then in October 2001, the world as he knew it ended abruptly: He and wife Terri lost one of their two children, Blake, to an accident. He was just 15.
Ledbetter numbly walked away from the business under a deal that sustained his income for 14 months. He likens that time to having a gaping wound that slowly became a scar. “I was overwhelmed by grief. I didn’t even want to live. Nothing interested me. I didn’t have any hope. I tell people all of the time that art saved my life. It gave me a reason to go on, ” he explains.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I never would have become an artist if Blake had lived, ” he continues. “It was that loss that brought out this latent ability in me.” On all of his artwork, he adds Blake’s initials next to his signature. “It’s like, ‘Hey, Blake, check this out, ’” he says.
The abrupt, unplanned career change was difficult for more reasons than one. Money was suddenly tight. Traveling the outdoor art show circuit could be “a crapshoot, ” with Ledbetter routinely leaving his studio with just enough money to reach the show. He was reliant on sales to at least cover his hotel bill and enough gasoline for the trip home. He wasn’t yet comfortable calling himself an artist, but he knew even then that he had found what he was meant to do.
“If I could go back to that business and quadruple my income, I wouldn’t. Not worth it, ” he says. “I work seven days a week, pretty much all the time. But it’s not like work; it’s different, ” he continues. “Listen to the radio. It’s all about hump day, all about getting you through the week, getting you to Friday. I don’t live like that now, thank God.”
Art shows introduced Ledbetter to people who challenged him to expand his creative efforts. “People commissioned all sorts of projects that I didn’t even know if I could do. I had to figure them out. It’s nice not to have those doubts anymore.”
ABOVE Ledbetter says he still had much to learn about his sculpture process when he created the double marlin commission that stands in the central Main Street cul-de-sac at The Wharf in Orange Beach. Since the installation, it has become one of the most recognizable elements of the resort destination and a tourist photo hotspot.
That steady stream of private commissions sparked larger, public projects. The first, about three years ago, resulted in the two marlins at The Wharf’s entrance. “There are thousands and thousands of pictures out there with people posing in front of those fish. And I made them, ” he says.
He’s been on a roll ever since. “The Wharf led to the Mobile Public Library’s Moorer Branch, which led to the Dauphin Island Estuarium and the Mattie Kelly Cultural Village in Destin, ” he explains enthusiastically. “I’m like a farmer putting out seeds: get enough work out there with your name on it and people contact you.” The most recent out-of-the-blue call resulted in a family of leaping dolphins for a fountain at the new Gulf Shores Welcome Center. And, of course, there’s Henry Shane. He’s embarking on a new 20-piece sculpture garden in Kenner that he envisions as a tourist destination on par with the collection in City Park. He expects Ledbetter will do two or three of them.
“We already have the next one planned. He’s creating a musical instrument sculpture out of brass, ” Shane says. “I think he’s got a great future. He’s capable of making just about anything that you talk about. And a lot of communities are looking for statement art.”
Frank Ledbetter is not yet one of those artists whose name instantly equates to six-figure prices. He calls it “Crazy Land” and admits that, at age 62, he’s not likely to get there. But in Kenner, his work stands proudly interspersed with the Crazy Landers’. So, he’s certainly closer to joining their ranks.
“I can’t explain all the things that have been happening lately. I don’t know where it’s going to take me, or how long I can hang here. I’m at a place that I never thought I would be, ” says Ledbetter, who seems content just to keep planting his seeds and reaping whatever sprouts. “In art, the possibilities are endless. It just blows my mind, all of the things that I want to do, and I know that I’ll never live long enough to do a fraction of them.”
Text by Adrian Hoff