Metallurgical Reimagining

Commissions for public art are hard to come by, but former metal
fabricator Frank Ledbetter is staking a claim in this competitive art world.

Business AlabamaMagazine, November 2015. Story and photos by Adrian Hoff


Sculptor Frank Ledbetter, Original Unedited Text:

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, reliant on sales to cover his hotel bill and enough gasoline to get 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 simplistic 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 art show-sized sculptures. They’re displayed in his spacious Kenner home in a 3rd floor gallery dominated by dozens of original Rodrigue paintings. 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."

He did have experience producing privately commissioned work. It’s largely how he honed his craft. "The art shows introduced me to people who commissioned all sorts of projects that, early on, I really didn't know how to do. I had to figure it out," Ledbetter explains.

Large "puzzley-design" fish emerged early as signature showpieces. Most hung on walls before private commissions inserted them into custom gates and elegant fountains. Then 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’s VP of Operations, Chris Miller. “From there we worked with the new owner at the Warf 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.”

Ledbetter’s first public sculpture, “Warf Marlin,” quickly became intertwined with the complex’s public persona. “Tens of thousands of the Warf’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, FL. 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. The project started with one of those out-of-the-blue calls he receives fairly often these days. "Get enough work out there with your name on it and somebody's going to say, ‘this guy's worth looking at,'” Ledbetter explains. "I'm like a farmer steadily planting seeds, then waiting to see what comes up.”

Ledbetter joined the Marines after high school. Then, after a brief stint at a paper mill, he started his fabrication business in 1976. Ledco didn't make him wealthy. But he was essentially debt-free when a new hire with “a Ph.D. and years of experience working with the nuclear industry” came aboard in ’96. "We started working with the U. S. Department of Energy on specialized products for the nuclear industry. I expected it to push my company to that next level.” Ledbetter says. “I met all of my contracts. But between the complexity of the designs, with tolerances verifiable only by laser, and the rush to ramp up production — it didn’t take long to realize that I’d given him enough rope to hang me. I kept hearing, ‘If you just add this one more thing....’”

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. Ledbetter admits he’s at a place that he never thought he’d reach, and that he’s still unsure of where he’ll ultimately land. But he’s not nostalgic for what’s been left behind.

"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% 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
Photographer and writer
Mobile, AL