More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Alan Sumas (Plasterer)

Everybody [Seventh Ward craftsmen] grew up in the same neighborhood and went to church and did everything together. Everyone knew one another. What made it real interesting, in terms of work, is that basically there were two different things going on. If you was a good plasterer, everyone wanted to know, "Who was your teacher?" and "What jobs did you do?" That was their way of seeing how good you are. If you couldn't tell me you was taught by one of these great teachers, then you didn't learn from the best, so you are lacking in something. If you did show me the job that you did, then I will tell you how you turned out as a mechanic. This is how it was done. At the same time there was another thing going on. These same people here, when they would do the fancy [work], cornice work per se, they would put up a curtain so no one could learn. Only a hand-picked few, people that they cared about, and that was family and friend. The outsiders did not learn or else they learned it on their own and they had to do a lot of research to do it. If you would pick up the mold to make the different shapes, some of the older plasterers would say, "Boy, put that down! That's like Japanese arithmetic to you." They kept people from learning.

My dad was number one. My dad had talent that's unheard of. My dad had great hand-and-eye coordination. He could play baseball. He could call wildlife out. He did taxidermy work; he could stuff animals. He could draw you just like you're sitting there. My dad used to take black velvet and paint white magnolias with oil paint and make it look three-dimensional. . . . He gave everything he did away. He was also a plasterer. My dad built a ship out of matchsticks, balsa wood, ice-cream sticks, toothpicks.

Lawrence Gima is my mother's brother. I thought he was the greatest plasterer that ever lived. I asked him, "Lawrence, who is the best plasterer you ever met?" "Without a doubt, Alex Barthé, bar none." Some of the other greats [were] Leon Loeb, Henry Tedao, Robert Jean, Allen David Sumas, Sr., Clement Torregano, Sr., Abbie Molezion , Edgar Ganier, Roy Gaillard, Herbert Oubre, Claude Doublet, all deceased. [Fine plasterers today include] Clement Torregano, Jr., Ferdinand Delrey, Palmer Newman, Emile Lumas.

[When I was] an apprentice, my uncle, Lawrence Gima, got a job for me; we are talking five great plasterers already there that I considered five of the top fifty plasterers that ever lived in the city of New Orleans. I definitely did not want to be the dumbest plasterer working for the company. So I bought books, I learned, I asked questions. I would look at certain churches and look at all this beautiful work and say, "Now what part of this can't I do? Oh, I can do just about all of this. Oh well I'm good, they taught me very well." We do not have that today with the youngsters. The youngsters want a paycheck. They want to do as least as possible for the money that they get. It's a shame to say it, but that's the truth.

That's what really motivates them (craftsmen) to do even better. They don't want to hear that they are not like their father or grandfather...If you want to really get on their nerves, tell them something like that. Just being part of a family tradition and working under some craftsman, especially good craftsman, if you take that trade up you have a responsibility because of your last name. Not because of your personality or your skills. They look at it like that.

Alan Sumas was interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.