RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Art can change how we see the world. Anna Coleman Ladd made art that changed how people saw others. It was World War I. Soldiers were coming home with devastating injuries hard to hide.
DAVID LUBIN: The part of the soldier's body that was most vulnerable was his face because if he looked up over a trench, that was the part that was going to be hit.
MARTIN: That was the voice of Wake Forest art professor David Lubin. He says Anna Coleman Ladd used her artistic skills to replicate the parts of faces lost. She made masks, sculpted them in a Red Cross studio in Paris. The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art has just posted a collection of Ladd's papers online, documenting her work.
LUBIN: Anna Coleman Ladd was born in Philadelphia but spent much of her life living in Europe. She studied sculpture and spent some time in Paris working with Rodin. In 1905, she married a prominent physician, moved to Boston and became a sculptor of well-to-do women. And then, when World War I broke out, she started reading stories about French soldiers who were losing their faces. And so then she got the idea of using her skills as a sculptor to help make masks for these men.
MARTIN: What were those interactions like? Did she make sure they felt comfortable before going through this strangely intimate process?
LUBIN: Yeah, you know, it's really fascinating to think about, that she's working with these patients, getting to know them - just their quirks, their daily life habits. She wanted to make the studio for portrait masks, as it was called, a really warm and inviting place where the men could come in and feel happy and relaxed. These men couldn't be seen on the street. They'd gone through multiple operations, and they were seen as so hideous, people would sometimes pass out from seeing them. And so what Ladd and her colleagues wanted to do was create a bond and a family for the men who were there. And if they could go out on the street and supervised expeditions with their nurses and nobody passed out or started shrieking when they saw them, the men felt like this was incredibly successful. And they would report this to her.
MARTIN: Also such a responsibility...
LUBIN: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: To choose an emotional moment to freeze on this person's identity in the form of a mask.
LUBIN: Yes. And so what she would do - she would make a plaster mold of the man's face, or what was left of his face, fill in the parts, you know, the missing chin, let's say. They would galvanize it in copper. And then she would go for repeated fittings that might take several weeks. She'd put it back on the face and she would try to paint a pigment that would be like the color of that man's skin. But what she had to do is she would always take a tone that was halfway between what it would appear to be on a cloudy day and what it would appear to be on a sunny day. I mean, the whole time she was there, which was about 18 months, I think they sculpted a total of 97 masks. It was incredibly labor-intensive. And once the war was over, the government - the Red Cross couldn't fund this anymore. And so the studios closed up, and she went back to Boston.
MARTIN: How did her art evolve after the war ended? I mean, could you see, in something that Anna Coleman Ladd did later on, a reflection of her work with these wounded soldiers?
LUBIN: You know, there's - almost none of her work is available to be seen, you know, in catalogs or anything. She did - ended up sort of returning to what she had been doing before the war and made portraits of wealthy people or sculpture for fountains - little nymphs. But I would have to say that the art she made before and after the war nowhere comes near the sort of importance and gravity of what she did during the war.
MARTIN: David Lubin is an art professor at Wake Forest University. He joined us to talk about the sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd. Thanks so much for talking with us.
LUBIN: Thanks, Rachel.
MARTIN: David Lubin's upcoming book is titled "Flags And Faces: The Visual Culture Of America's First World War."
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