To Charlie Brouwer, the assemblage of 150-plus ladders in Pulaski’s Jackson Park is a visual representation of what a community ought to be.
Each ladder lent or donated by a community member “will represent their hopes and dreams, or the hopes and dreams of their church or school, or whoever they loan it in the name of,” the artist said. “And we’ll tie it together to all the other ladders from the community, so that they’re all both holding each other up and leaning on each other. So it’s a kind of a mutual support system … close to the ideal of what a community is supposed to be about, a collection of individuals who are concerned and care for each other.”
It’s a universal theme that applies to all of the ladder installations that Brouwer has erected in communities ranging from Michigan to Georgia.
But mayor Shannon Collins also sees something specific to his town. To him, “Together We Rise: Pulaski” symbolizes the revitalization of a community once known mainly for drug problems. (See our previous story on Pulaski’s comeback.)
“It brings more attention, good attention, to Pulaski,” Collins said. “And with the idea of ‘Together We Rise,’ it’s gotten more meanings, because we need to rise. I mean, we’ve been down for a while.”
A project of the nonprofit Fine Arts Center for the New River Valley, “Together We Rise: Pulaski” will be formally opened with a ribbon-cutting at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. It will be on display at Jackson Park through June 1, after which the ladders will be returned to their owners, or donated to Habitat for Humanity.
Becky Lattuca first learned about Brouwer’s ladder assemblages in 2011 when he installed one in the atrium of the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke. “I had a ladder that had belonged to my dad who had recently passed away, and I lent the ladder to that project,” she said. Seeing her dad’s name on the list, she felt an unexpected connection to the artist, the community and others who had donated ladders.
“Rise Up Roanoke” used 351 ladders.
Mary LaGue is the registrar of the Taubman. “It was a great community activity,” she said. “That was a lot of ladders for people to let us borrow for some months. General visitors as well as people who had lent the ladders came in to see. They would sit around the barrier and talk about what was going on. It impressed them that something so mundane as a ladder, added to other people’s ladders, could amount to such a significant piece of art.”
In 2021 Lattuca became executive director of the Fine Arts Center, which is headquartered in Pulaski. In 2022 she approached the board of directors about doing a ladder project with Brouwer. “Me being new, working in that community, I just felt like it would be a wonderful project for the arts center to bring to the community,” the Radford resident said. “And it would be a wonderful way for me to start to get to know some of the community members.”
Brouwer lives in the Alum Ridge section of Floyd County. He makes sculptures for galleries and museums and also works on paper and canvas.
“In dealing with the art world, with galleries and museums, there’s kind of an exclusive quality to it,” he said. “Even though museums and galleries are open to the public, they are more frequented by people who are interested in ‘the arts.’ And I got an interest in reaching beyond that … trying to reach the public that was beyond the art world.”
In contrast to the model of the artist who strives to express an individual vision, this type of work is known as community engagement or social practice art, Brouwer said.
He grew up in Holland, Michigan, and moved to Radford in 1987 to teach art at Radford University. He retired in 2008 to create and exhibit full time.
His first ladder installation was done in the early 2000s.
“I had a connection to an arts center in my hometown. And they asked me if I was interested in doing an installation with them because they had a little state money to do that,” he said. “And we borrowed ladders from all over the community. I think we were aiming for 100. We eventually got about that many, and it was installed inside the art center and tied together with links of clothesline rope. And that served as a model for the story of the sculpture.”
Since then Brouwer has erected ladders in 15 communities large and small including Bluefield; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Atlanta; St. Louis; Wilmington, North Carolina; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Rabun County, Georgia.
Brouwer wanted to do the Pulaski project, but at 76, he was losing eyesight and was no longer able to drive.
After his last installation, in Kingsport, Tennessee, in 2017, “I kind of decided just to not do them anymore,” he said. Then, “I started thinking … perhaps I could teach it to a community. And they could take it on. And it would actually be more successful because the community itself would be doing the whole project. And so that’s what’s happened here.”
Barry Keller, a Pulaski County artist who makes large welded sculptures, did most of the actual assembly and high climbing. He is “a very creative individual,” Brouwer said. “He thinks a lot like me in building these things. It’s been fun to work with him.”
“I’m just going off of Charlie’s inspiration,” Keller said. “I’m just the monkey in this case, climbing up and zip-tying everything together. “
Keller’s description of himself as a “monkey” may be too modest. “I’m certain that he will also shape the overall final project,” Lattuca said.
On the windy afternoon of May 3, when the National Weather Service reported gusts of up to 33 mph in nearby Dublin, Keller climbed fearlessly up the 17 1/2-foot-tall assembly of lashed-together ladders. Asked if it could withstand the winds, he said, “Yeah, it’s just going to stand up. Oh, absolutely. I can jump anywhere on it I want to. It’s not going to go anywhere. I build houses for a living as my normal day job. I’m quite confident.”
Keller was hired by the Fine Arts Center, which funded the project. The total budget is $10,000, Lattuca said.
“One thing that’s really important to Charlie about this project, is that we do not reach out to individuals to ask them for financial support,” Lattuca said. “We wanted to ask one thing of our community and that was just to lend us a ladder.”
Town resident Wendy Morris brought a multicolored wooden ladder. “I paint a lot,” she said. “And I was at a town meeting and this just sounded like a good idea. And I happened to have a ladder and a lot of bright paint.”
Morris added a personal splash of color to the unconventional sculpture rising in the downtown park, where, along First Street, Burma Shave style-signs beseeched passers-by to “Lend A Ladder, Build A Community.”
The formal opening of “Together We Rise: Pulaski” will be at 6:30 May 6 in Jackson Park. The Greater Pulaski Junior Appalachian Musicians will perform shortly before the ribbon-cutting. Speakers will include Charlie Brouwer, Becky Lattuca, Pulaski County Board of Supervisors member Jeffery Reeves, Mayor Shannon Collins, and Bill Cunningham, president of the Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce.
Note to parents: Little monkeys will “absolutely not” be allowed to climb on the oversized jungle gym, although visitors will be allowed to walk through it.