London Ladd brings words to life. He’s an illustrator who creates the visuals that help tell the stories of some our nation’s most historic figures. Ladd credits Onondaga Community College with putting him on the path to success. “The decision to go to OCC was basically the turning point in my life. Once I got into OCC and applied myself it built up my confidence and laid my foundation.”
Ladd grew up in Syracuse and fell in love with art at a young age. “I was fascinated with comic books, cartoons and some animated movies. I would try to draw the covers of Marvel comic books.” Despite his fascination with art Ladd only took one art class while attending Corcoran High School.
When it was time to start thinking about college a guidance counselor recommended he go to OCC. Ladd took his advice and entered as a computer science major. “Computers were really growing in popularity in the early 1990s. I thought I could get into it early, ride the wave and have financial security.”
Ladd’s logic was sound but it didn’t work out for him. “In my computer science classes I loved the math but really struggled with the science part of it.” At the same time Ladd was also taking art classes and eventually realized it was his passion.
Ladd switched majors and received tremendous support from the art faculty. “Professor Tim Rodrigo was very honest, blunt and fair with me. He didn’t sugar coat anything. Professor Jen Griffin gave me the confidence I needed. I was surrounded by students who started much earlier in life taking art classes. She always gave me the boost I needed. Without Professors Rodrigo and Griffin I wouldn’t have survived.”
Four years after becoming the first member of his family to go to college Ladd earned his art degree from OCC in 1995. He transferred to Syracuse University and continued to develop his skills. Ladd got his first professional break when his art work was displayed in New York City along with the work of all graduating SU students. Someone with Scholastic publishing left a comment about Ladd’s which read, “I really love your work.”
Several months later Ladd received a phone call. Scholastic publishing had a project for him but he would have a short time to complete it. Illustrations were needed for the picture book, “March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed The World.” The book was written by Christine King Farris, sister of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ladd drew the illustrations and the book won an Andrew Carnegie Medal, a Parents’ Choice Approved Award in Historical Fiction, and was a 2009 Teachers’ Choices book list selection.
Ladd’s big break resulted in more projects coming his way. He did illustrations for “Under the Freedom Tree,” written by Susan Vanhecke. The book is set in Virginia in the early 1860s. Three escaped slaves made their way from the Confederate line to a Union-held fort where they were declared “contraband of war” and granted protection. As news of their escape traveled, thousands of runaway slaves poured into the fort seeking their freedom. These “contrabands” made a home for themselves, building the first African-American community in the country. In 1863, they bore witness to one of the first readings of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South beneath the sheltering branches of the tree now known as Emancipation Oak.
During the process of creating the illustrations Ladd went to Virginia for three days. He took in the surroundings, learned the history of what had happened and found great inspiration. “When I get a manuscript I go through it and really need to understand it and feel it. I need to find a connection which translates into my illustrations.”
Ladd found a similar process worked for him while creating illustrations for “Lend a Hand,” a book about children helping other people. He went around Syracuse and found scenes that inspired him. One of his illustrations came from a scene the DestiNY USA shopping mall. “I saw two girls in a salon and asked if I could take pictures of them for a story about a girl donating her hair for “Locks of Love.” They agreed and while I was taking pictures one of them shared a story about her sister who had been battling leukemia. Suddenly I had a connection and it inspired me.” Another illustration Ladd created for the book was of children cleaning a park. His inspiration came from Elmwood Park, located near Corcoran where he attended high school. “I went there a lot when I was younger and it’s still one of my favorite places to go.”
Near the end of 2014 Ladd completed work on his most extensive and exhausting project to date. He created illustrations for a book titled “Frederick’s Journey,” which will be out in 2015. The subject of the book is Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and became a leader of the abolitionist movement.
“Frederick’s Journey” is part of the Big Words series by Disney and Hyperion publishers. Other books in the series profile Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. among others. “To be a part of this series you have to be beyond your best. If you want something excellent you need to go the extra mile. That’s what I did.”
Ladd grew out his hair so he would look like Douglass, went to his grave in Rochester and spent three days in the Washington, DC and Virginia area while visiting Douglass’ home. “I looked so much like Douglass that when I was walking out of his home people were complimenting me. They thought I was a re-enactor!” On the left is a photo of Douglass. On the right is a photo of Ladd.
“During this project I connected on a spiritual level. It was unlike any of my previous work.” His hard work paid off. As part of the illustration process artists submit their work then wait for a list of recommended revisions. Ladd didn’t receive any requests for revisions, only compliments. “I was very surprised. I knew the work I had done was really good but something like this never happens.”
In between his illustration projects Ladd is very active in the community. He works with children at Syracuse’s McKinley-Brighton Elementary School as part of the Say Yes to Education after-school program. Ladd focuses on art but also shares his life story. “I let them know I was a bi-racial kid with no father. I want them to know they have the opportunity to accomplish what I have accomplished.”
Wherever Ladd goes he also talks about OCC. “I want everyone, especially kids, to know my journey. If you have trust and believe you can get there too. I credit OCC with everything personal and professional because that’s where I met my wife. We’ve been married for 20 years and have a 19-year-old daughter. When I started there I was just a kid and I had to become an adult.”
Ladd hopes to one day open an art center where families can come and create and develop their own art. In the meantime he has “dream jobs” for himself: to get a stamp commissioned, to work for National Geographic, and to create and illustrate graphic novels and children’s books.