Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Martin Puryear's "Ladder for Booker T. Washington"


The Lesson


Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear (1941–), Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996. Wood (ash and maple), 432 x 22 3/4 in., narrowing at the top to 1 1/4 x 3 in. (1097.28 x 57.785.cm., narrowing to 3.175 x 7.6 cm.).

Credit: Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of Ruth Carter Stevenson, by Exchange.

I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed."

—Booker T. Washington

Students examine Martin Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington and consider how the title of Puryear’s sculpture is reflected in the meanings we can draw from it. Students learn about Booker T. Washington’s life and legacy. They also gain understanding on how a ladder can be a metaphor for a person’s and a group’s progress toward goals.

Guiding Questions

  • How are the philosophy and legacy of Booker T. Washington reflected in the features of Martin Puryear’s artwork Ladder for Booker T. Washington?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson students will be able to:

  • Perceive and describe artistic qualities, craftsmanship, and connotations of 20th century African American artist Martin Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington.
  • Explain Booker T. Washington’s promotion of African American self-advancement through education, the virtues of hard work, and service to the community.
  • Discuss how Puryear’s ladder elicits connotations of aspiration, growth, and achievement as envisioned by Booker T. Washington for all African Americans.
  • Consider how other groups have struggled, climbed, and risen.


Martin Puryear

African American artist Martin Puryear studied art during the second half of the 20th century, at a time when abstract and minimalist art, in which artists expressed their ideas in elemental, simple forms, dominated art galleries and museums. Martin Puryear retains these ideas of abstraction and minimalism in the vaguely familiar forms of his art. When he talks about his art, he describes how he worked with materials to create a form.

Puryear was born in 1941 in Washington, D.C. His parents encouraged his interests in art and science. He visited Washington, D.C.’s national art and science museums and took private art lessons. He learned to build furniture, guitars, and even a canoe. For a while he thought he might become a wildlife illustrator and majored in painting at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. After college, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, Puryear became interested in the craftsmanship of handmade objects that he saw in West Africa. Later he studied art in Sweden and learned Scandinavian furniture-making techniques. In 1971 he earned an MFA from Yale University. Today he lives in the Hudson Valley area of New York.

Puryear’s Sculpture

Puryear creates his art from a variety of materials including metal, stone, wood, and even tar. Combining a feeling for essential forms with traditional craftsmanship, his sculptures often suggest (but do not imitate) useful everyday objects such as a ladder or a shoehorn.

As Puryear planned this sculptural ladder, his initial goal was to create an exaggerated perspective that would make the work seem longer than it actually was. One challenge was to slit a thirty-six-foot-long, slightly twisting ash sapling lengthwise for the ladder’s rails. With the craftsmanship of a skilled furniture builder, he fit bulging maple rungs between the rails and carefully smoothed the surface. The lower part of the ladder is similar to the width of a regular ladder but narrows to only 1 1/4” at the top. Wires suspend it above the ground. Climbing this spindly, wobbling ladder that seems to ascend to infinity would be a long, almost impossible trip.

Only after Martin Puryear completed this sculpture, did he title it Ladder for Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington was a prominent African American educator and orator who was born into slavery in 1856 and eventually became the first leader of Tuskegee Institute, an educational institution in Alabama. Believing in the dignity of academic training, manual labor, and service to the community, Washington insisted that Tuskegee Institute students learn a trade in addition to their academic studies. He believed that education was the key to African Americans’ gradual social and economic rise and acceptance in the United States. He understood that persons struggling to attain a goal must begin where they are, and work with what they have to achieve their goal — no matter how far away it may be.

A Ladder for Booker T. Washington

Washington’s called his two-volume autobiography of 1900/01, Up From Slavery, a title that suggests climbing, maybe up a ladder. Washington was familiar with the Old Testament Bible story of Jacob’s vision of a ladder extending to heaven and the African American spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” Later, 1960s Civil Rights movement marchers sang this song. Puryear joined Washington’s ideas about upward progress with the form of this ladder after he made it. He said the title seemed to fit the work. It becomes a metaphor that expands the meaning of the art.

See an interview with Martin Puryear about his sculpture and a brief chronology of African American history.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Print out worksheets for
    1. Activity 1—Look and Think (Prelude to Discussing the Art)
    2. Activity 2—Booker T. Washington Historical Head with Directions for completing the Historical Head worksheet, and Booker T. Washington biography
    3. Activity 3—A Fitting Title (Venn diagram with directions for a written paragraph)

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Look and Think

Before discussing the art, have the students complete Worksheet 1 — Look and Think as they study a large image of Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington.

Use Worksheet 1 as a framework for discussing the art and the students’ perceptions about it. During the discussion add information to help them understand background and concepts involved in this art.

1. Describe this ladder.

a. Guess how wide and how long it is. Without a frame of reference, it’s difficult to tell exactly how long the ladder is. It’s a little less than a foot wide at its base and only a little more than an inch at the top. It’s 36 feet long. Compare that to the length or height of the classroom.

b. What type of lines make up this ladder? The sides of the ladder twist and curve, while the straight rungs barely bulge in the middle. Puryear made the sides of the ladder by splitting a sapling (young tree) lengthwise. He carefully sanded and polished the ladder’s wood, which creates a stronger profile for the ladder's lines. Puryear perfected his woodworking techniques when he studied in West Africa and in Scandinavia.

c. What do these different lines suggest about this ladder?. The twisting, curved lines of the sides are organic and remind us of the growth of the tree from which they were made. The center part of the rungs swells slightly. suggesting growth. However, the way they are spaced seems geometric or man-made.

2. How did the artist design this ladder to make it look like it is longer than it really is?

Puryear explained that he “forced” the perspective of the ladder. Although the width of lower rungs is about what you might expect in a regular ladder, the width at the top is much smaller. Also, as the rungs go higher, they are closer together, and the ladder is tilted at an angle.

3. Why would this ladder be difficult to climb?

It does not actually rest on the ground, but is suspended by wires above the floor. To begin climbing this ladder, one would have to pull oneself up onto it. Because the ladder would probably sway back and forth, just getting on it could be difficult. The upper rungs are too narrow for the width of a person’s foot.

4. List several words or activities that come to mind when you think of ladders.

Develop a class list as students suggest the many connotations and uses of ladders. These might include going higher or lower, getting to or off the roof for repairs or construction, a Bible story about Jacob’s ladder, or the song We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.

5. Ladders can be symbolic. Think of phrases like “climb to success” and “getting to the top.” Describe how this ladder could be a metaphor for someone’s climb to success.

Climbing this particular ladder to success would be very difficult. Just pulling oneself up onto this pathway to upward mobility would be a challenge; maybe friends could help you begin the climb.

Activity 2. Booker T. Washington Historical Head

This activity is meant to provide students information about Booker T. Washington. Students should be given a copy of the historical head blackline handout, directions for completing the historical head, and a copy of the condensed biography of Booker T. Washington (from the National Park Service).

Students can read the biography together in class or individually. After they have read the biography, ask them what a symbol is (a picture which represents an idea, action, or event). Explain that they will be describing Booker T. Washington with three unique words and three symbols.

Discuss the directions with the students. When the students have completed the head, have them share their unique words and symbols with the class, comparing/contrasting word and symbol choice with their peers.

**Note: The Historical Head is taken from A Passion For the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History by Jim Percoco, Heinemann Press, 1998.

Activity 3. A Fitting Title

The purpose of this activity is for students to think about why Martin Puryear named his art work, Ladder for Booker T. Washington. Martin Puryear said, “The joining of that idea of Booker T. Washington and his notion of progress and the form of that piece — that came after the fact. But when I thought about a title for it, it just seemed absolutely fitting.” [See Art:21 Interview]

After students have learned about Martin Puryear and Booker T. Washington, have them complete the Activity 3 worksheet. Comparing and contrasting Booker T. Washington’s ideas with Puryear’s ladder will help them understand why Puryear titled his art Ladder for Booker T. Washington. On the Venn diagram in the worksheet they may write characteristics distinctive to Puryear and the ladder in the left circle, characteristics of Washington and his idea’s in the right circle, and characteristics they share in the middle where the circles overlap. .

Possible student responses might be:

Puryear and Ladder for Booker T. Washington (left circle)

  • Puryear is an artist
  • sculpture
  • Made in 1996
  • Crafted of wood
  • forced perspective

Similar (overlapping circles)

  • Creators are African American men
  • They grew up in racially segregated communities
  • Both ladder and Washington’s philosophies suggest a long difficult climb
  • Friends can help each other begin the climb
  • Both creators valued fine manual craftsmanship

Booker T. Washington and his ideas about racial struggle for equality (right circle)

  • wrote Up From Slavery, 1900
  • Washington was an educator and lecturer.
  • Headed Tuskegee Institute

Students should use their answers to the questions about Booker T. Washington and the characteristics they noticed as they compared and contrasted Puryear’s art with Washington and his ideas to write a paragraph explaining why they think Martin Puryear named this piece “Ladder for Booker T. Washington.” Discuss the students’ written paragraphs when the assignment is complete.


Have students think about whom else climbed the rungs of a ladder to achieve success and recognition in U.S. History.

On the floor of your classroom or in the hallway, use masking tape to make a ladder. Divide students into four equal groups. Have them think about other groups who have climbed “the rungs of a ladder” to achieve success and recognition in U.S. History (women, Native Americans, disabled Americans, immigrants, gays/lesbians, etc.). Allow students to do research on important milestones, people, and laws for their assigned group of people. On sentence strips have them write the names, dates, events, and actions. Each group then presents and lays their sentence strips on top of the masking tape ladder rungs and explains how their group has climbed or continues to climb for success and recognition in U.S. History.

Extending The Lesson

1. Sing or listen to the African American spiritual song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The melody is widely available on the Internet.

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

Every round goes higher, higher,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Soldiers of the cross.

Sinner, do you love my Jesus?
Sinner, do you love my Jesus?
Sinner, do you love my Jesus?
Soldiers of the cross.

If you love Him, why not serve Him?
If you love Him, why not serve Him?
If you love Him, why not serve Him?
Soldiers of the cross.


Selected EDSITEment Websites
Picturing America Resources

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Art History
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Art and Culture
  • Visual art analysis
  • Kaye Passmore, Ed.D, Art Education Consultant (Corpus Christi, TX)
  • Amy Trenkle, NBCT, 8th Grade U.S. History Teacher, Stuart-Hobson Middle School (Washington, DC)