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


Allison "Tootie" Montana (Lather)

I've always been independent all my life. I've never asked nobody for nothing. I've never borrowed nothing from nobody, you know. I depend on my job. So if you depend on your job, you have to be there. You can't depend on a job and be sitting at home. I never like missing no work. I was known to don't drive, never miss work, and be the first man on the job no matter where the job was. That's what I was known. I went to a wake one night and a guy was in there, he come from a plastering family, and his little daughter—he and his wife and daughter were standing up, and when the daughter heard him say, "Montana," he say, "Honey, you know this man," and she say, "Yeah, that's the man that don't drive, don't miss no work, and be the first man on the job." I said, "Somebody been talking." People talk about me at their table—like eating, you know, you hold a conversation—and be talking about me, how I never miss work. And that's true. You miss work, you miss money. You got to be there, and since you need money to live—hey!

See when I was coming up, man, a guy got of age, if he wasn't going to school, he'd go to work with the man next door. The man next door might be a plasterer, cutting trees down, go work with him. It was something to do. But today, there's nothing for them to do. No apprentice schools. You can't see how you're going to school to learn how to be a brick layers, they don't have such. No plasterers. No lathers. No carpenters.

Well, you had people that was in the Top Ten. When you was in the Top Ten, you had no problem. You keep a job. And the ones that wasn't so good, they only got a job when there was a push. So that's the reason why you had to be good. And I knew that. And I was in that Top Ten. [If] there was ten lathers in the city working, Montana was one of 'em. . . . I can drive a nail blindfolded, you see. You have to, to stand out.

I can see things and do it the way I see it. My trade helped me with my Indian suit [made to wear as Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas]. Measuring and centers. That's how I work. In fact, my Indian suit, everything I done on that suit come from what I learned from building. I have a center line that I work. Every building has a center line that's put in there that's a jump start. Everything is worked off of that line. My crown, that's my center line. My apron, everything center line. . . . Well, tell you the truth, my way of making the suit and getting the points, just designing the suit as a whole, my trade helps me, you see. The only thing is I'm working with cardboard and with my trade I'm working with iron, light iron and wire, metal lath. It's no different. That's why I can make a design, break it down, get it square to inches, but I can do the same thing with my trade. See, my trade helped me with making the suits, mending a suit.

Well, if you have a large cornice maybe three feet long, wide, and thick come off the wall and maybe four feet deep, you can't put that much solid molding up there; that's too heavy. You'll have a problem hanging it, so you get a lather to frame it. I would frame it, put my iron in there, make my brackets and level it. I come out of the wall so far, line it up the same difference from the wall. See, you use the mold that he going to use to let you shape, for you to draw it, and you make your pattern an inch behind what he's got to come out to. So that give him an inch to build up.

For more information about Tootie Montana's Mardi Gras costumes, see: He's The Prettiest: A Tribute To Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana's 50 Years Of Mardi Gras Indian Suiting.

Allison "Tootie" Montana 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.