Commissions for public art are hard to come by, but former metal fabricator Frank Ledbetter is staking a claim in this competitive art world.
Frank Ledbetter lets the eagle soar free from its birth in a 12-inch pipe and a few sheets of metal.
Some 12 years ago Frank Ledbetter’s life was in tatters. An ill-fated expansion had plunged the metal fabrication shop he’d founded in 1976 more than $1.2 million into debt. Avoiding bankruptcy meant selling all personal assets except the family home — including his third of a successful, ancillary start-up company. Two new partners boosted operating capital. But failing to exercise the contract’s buy-back clause within two years would render Ledbetter little more than an employee of the company that he’d previously owned outright. Then his 15-year-old son Blake died in an accident. Grief and depression consumed the next 18 months of Ledbetter’s life. He emerged with no inkling of what to do next. He started making stuff out of metal. Fun stuff. The effort was more therapeutic than entrepreneurial. He certainly didn’t expect strangers to show up, asking to see his creations.
Spontaneous sales and positive feedback convinced him to try the outdoor art show circuit. For a novice, completely self-taught sculptor whose creative process was based mostly on trial and error, it proved difficult. Stressful. He often set out with only enough money to reach the show, relying on sales to cover his hotel bill and gasoline for the trip home. A $1,000-plus show was a godsend. Now, barely a decade later, a single commission can easily eclipse his annual income during that period. In August, five such commissions monopolized his schedule through year’s end.
“I’ve really been blessed. I can’t explain all of the things that have been happening lately,” says Ledbetter, en route to Louisiana for the installation of “Majestic.”
The short explanation is Henry Shane. The New Orleans-area real estate developer and philanthropist commissioned Ledbetter’s massive stainless steel eagle for the City of Kenner’s multi-artist sculpture exhibit along Loyola Drive. The two met at an art show five years ago, shortly after Shane had launched the first phase of his ambitious public art project with George Rodrigue’s now iconic Blue Dog sculpture in Metairie.
Shane bought several of Ledbetter’s pieces for his Kenner home. It might have ended there. Even when privately funded, city art installations navigate a complex approval process. “It was easy with other, major artists, to just say who would do it. If I said Hunt Slonem, he’s known. He has an established identity,” Shane explains. “When I met Frank, he didn’t have that.”
But his “puzzley-design” fish, once his signature work at outdoor art shows, found a new demand in custom gates and fountains. And in 2011, the Gulf Coast Triple Crown (GCTC) Championship asked Ledbetter to create a freestanding marlin “winner’s trophy” each year: described in GCTC literature as “six foot tall, one of a kind masterpieces handcrafted by metal artist Frank Ledbetter, valued at $10,000.”
“Our association with Frank started in 2011 with the first GCTC Championship,” explains Coastal Marine Management VP of Operations Chris Miller. “From there we worked with the new owner at the Wharf Entertainment Complex — when the billfish tower was erected at what’s now Marlin Circle, Frank was commissioned to make the two flanking giant blue marlin.”
ABOVE Frank Ledbetter had no inkling that his first major commission, “Wharf Marlin” in 2011, would be such a life-changing event: in just over four years he’s produced a dozen large public sculptures, with two more already on the books.
Ledbetter’s first public sculpture, “Wharf Marlin,” quickly became intertwined with the complex’s public persona. “Tens of thousands of the Wharf’s visitors have taken pictures with it,” says Miller. “Compound that with social media and where all of those pictures go: there really is no price tag that you can put on that type of publicity.”
A spate of public commissions followed — most notably the trio of rays at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Estuarium, the “Flame of Knowledge” at the Mobile Public Library’s Moorer Branch and the Mattie Kelly Cultural Village’s soaring 25-foot tall “Welcoming Arms” sculpture, in Destin, Florida. Ledbetter contacted Shane.
“Frank showed me sculptures he had done in Destin and other places, and we decided to attempt something in Kenner. The first was “Drying and Dreaming” on Williams Boulevard in 2012. We’ve worked in three more by Frank on Loyola, and already have the next one planned,” Shane explains. “Now when I tell the city that Frank Ledbetter is doing that sculpture, all I need is one quick sketch, and it’s approved. He has established an identity, at least within our city.” One Ledbetter sculpture is, in fact, now integral to Kenner’s own identity, says Shane. The aptly named “KENNER” is pictured in nearly every article written about the city.
Ledbetter’s most recently completed public piece is a family of leaping dolphins. It adorns the multi-tiered fountain at the new $2.1 million Welcome Center in Gulf Shores.
Ledbetter started Ledco in 1976 and managed well till a bad hiring choice left his business on the brink.
For a 53-year-old man with no artistic training, no history of painting or sculpting, the sudden leap from building widgets to creating art full time seems almost farcical.
“If I could go back to that business and quadruple my income, I wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be worth it,” he says. “Every local fabrication business has similar shop fees. Their costs, like salary levels and materials, are comparable. Margins are slim. On a $200,000 job I might have made 10-15 percent if everything went right — that means an accurate estimate and completing the job with no screw-ups of any kind.
“Now I get paid for what’s here, and here,” he continues, pointing to his heart and his head. “Just think about it: a few weeks ago that eagle was just a piece of 12-inch pipe and a few sheets of metal.”
Ledbetter puts Blake’s initials next to his signature on every sculpture. “I never would have become an artist if Blake had lived. I’d still be a fabricator. It was that loss that brought out this latent ability in me that I really didn’t know I had,” he says. Then, glancing up, he adds, “I’m doing what I am meant to do at this point in my life.”
Adrian Hoff is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Mobile.