Ladd, Ileta Kerr [Sweetie] (1902–1991)

By: Kathryn Lang Allen

Type: Biography

Published: August 17, 2021

Updated: August 17, 2021


Sweetie Ladd, Fort Worth folk artist and known as the “Grandma Moses” of Fort Worth, daughter of Edgar and Lou (Reynolds) Kerr, was born in the family home in Bonham, Texas, on April 13, 1902. She was the fifth of six Kerr children. She was given the sobriquet “Sweetie,” reportedly for her sweet temperament, by one of her three older sisters and rarely used her formal name. Her father, a rancher and cattleman, moved his family to Fort Worth in 1905. He was affiliated with the Cassidy Southwestern Commission Company, housed in the Fort Worth Livestock Exchange building. She attended Fort Worth’s Central High School (now Green B. Trimble Technical High School) and graduated in 1919.

On June 10, 1920, Sweetie Kerr married Homer William Ladd, whose family owned the Ladd Furniture and Carpet Company in downtown Fort Worth. The couple were members of the First Presbyterian Church. In 1930 the Ladds’ only child, Homer William Ladd, Jr., was born with developmental challenges and special needs. Sweetie devoted herself to caring for him throughout her long life, and she published Seeing Texas: A Child’s Travelog of Texas (1943), her account of a memorable summer trip the Ladds took around the state when Homer Jr. was ten.

Ladd received a degree in English and Spanish from Texas Christian University (TCU) in 1932. She was a member of the Tarrant County Historical Society and the Lecture Foundation. She was also a charter member of the Fort Worth Garden Club, the Woman’s Club of Fort Worth, and the Woman’s Wednesday Club. At one time she served as chair of the Woman’s Club Library Department.

She worked for many years in the Ladd family furniture business and also drew advertisements for the company. Ladd became interested in commercial art, but she did not take up painting until she was about sixty. She was instructed in drawing by Fort Worth artist Bror Utter in the art department at the Woman’s Club. She took a history of architecture class at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, as well as a class in perspective at TCU to improve her presentation of architectural subjects. Ladd, who had taught the nondenominational Rae Reimers Bible Class for forty years, abandoned it because the TCU class was offered at the same time the Bible study met. She also attended art workshops, including international workshops in Paris, Mexico, and Spain. At one workshop, New York painter Frederic Taubes reportedly discouraged her from continuing formal art instruction as he felt that it would ruin her primitive style. She took his advice, despite her private misgivings about whether a sophisticated, well-traveled, and well-educated woman like herself could legitimately be considered a folk artist. Later asked to explain how she achieved what she called her “eclectic primitive” style, she reportedly quipped, “Just paint poorly, dear.”

Ladd initially worked with oils, but she soon discovered that she was allergic to oil paint. For the rest of her painting career, she worked in watercolor, with graphite underdrawings, and ink. She also created lithographs and hand-colored etchings.

In the early 1960s she began her first series, Cries of Fort Worth, consisting of fifteen works inspired by Francis Wheatley’s eighteenth-century etchings, Cries of London, which depict peddlers selling their wares. Ladd’s watercolors recorded Fort Worth’s peddlers in early twentieth century Fort Worth. Her second series, Fort Worth Landmarks, featured historical buildings and scenes. From her vivid memories and from her research at the Fort Worth Library, she painted scenes of long-gone structures, such as the Texas Spring Palace, the Worth Hotel, and the Majestic Theatre, along with contemporary Fort Worth landmarks, including Thistle Hill, Margaret Meacham Hall, the M. A. Benton House, and the Flatiron Building. Notable events captured in her paintings include Fort Worth’s Great Southside Fire of 1909; the freezing of Lake Worth in 1930; and the Liberty Bell parade in 1915, part of the Liberty Bell Tour of Texas. Her paintings were known for their whimsical and historically-accurate details.

Sweetie Ladd began exhibiting her work at the Woman’s Club of Fort Worth’s art exhibits in the mid-1960s and won multiple awards. Throughout the years, her works were exhibited and sold at many local venues, including Thistle Hill, the Patio Gallery, the Frame Oasis, and at University Bank. In 1972 the Bette Farmer Shoppe and Art Gallery hosted an exhibit of Ladd’s works. Coppergate Studios handled her art and hosted an exhibition in February 1976. Her paintings and lithographs were offered at benefits in various local venues and shown in juried art exhibits at the University of Texas at Arlington, the Fort Worth Art Museum, and the Texas Fine Arts Association.

In 1976 Sunday School Picnic, her watercolor of a 1908 picnic at the original Broadway Presbyterian Church, was included in a month-long exhibit American Painters in Paris. Held in Paris, France, the exhibit was a French tribute to the American Bicentennial. In 1977 Ladd placed works from her first two series on permanent loan at the Fort Worth Public Library, and in 1992, thirty-two of these paintings, belonging to her Landmarks series, were purchased from her estate by the library for $6,200. Ten others from her earlier Cries of Fort Worth series were later added to the purchase, for which an additional $2,000 was raised.

In October 1982 Hall Galleries in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square hosted a sold-out solo retrospective of Ladd’s work. After Ron Hall moved his gallery to Dallas, he hosted a second Sweetie Ladd retrospective in 1986. She was featured in the October 1982 issue of Texas Homes and in Dallas-Fort Worth Home & Garden.

Ileta “Sweetie” Kerr Ladd painted nearly up to the day she died. She died on April 26, 1991, in Fort Worth, Texas, and was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in that city. She was predeceased by her husband in 1978.

In 1999 Sweetie’s Ladd’s Historic Fort Worth was published by TCU Press. Authored by former Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Cissy Stewart Lale, the book presented thirty-eight of Sweetie Ladd’s paintings owned by the Fort Worth Public Library and described the historical and cultural context of each work. In 2003 Ladd’s art was included in Dreams and Memories of Things Past: An Exhibit of Texas Folk Art, at the Michelson Museum in Marshall. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art holds two of her works in its permanent collection, a version of The Fort Worth Stock Exchange from 1975 and Potted Flowers from the same year.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 3, 1972; January 29, 1976; October 17, 1982; April 29, 1991. Cissy Stewart Lale, Sweetie Ladd’s Historic Fort Worth (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1999).

Categories:

  • Visual Arts
  • Folk Arts
  • Painting
  • Women

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Kathryn Lang Allen, “Ladd, Ileta Kerr [Sweetie],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 05, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ladd-ileta-kerr-sweetie.

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August 17, 2021
August 17, 2021

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