When Earl Barthe, a master plasterer, fled his home in New Orleans three Sundays ago, he left behind not only a lifetime of his own work but also 150 years of architectural decoration that his family had designed throughout the city.
"My family left on Saturday, a day ahead of me. And they were saying, 'Come on, Daddy, get ready,' and I said no, I am not going, it is not going to be that bad," Barthe recalled. Within hours, the fury of the winds and water from Hurricane Katrina changed his mind, and so he packed a pair of shoes, a pair of jeans, a shirt and a hat, got in his truck and drove to Texas.
"Nothing, zero. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. I have one leaf tool that is like a little trowel that was my grandfather's. It was in my truck, " Barthe, 83, said, referring to the tools of his trade. The legendary craftsman was in Washington yesterday to receive a National Heritage Fellowship, one of 12 artisans and musicians whom the National Endowment for the Arts is honoring this year for perpetuating traditional arts. The fellowships, which were announced in June, each come with a one-time award of $20,000.
Barthe, a slender man wearing a dapper borrowed suit and hat, joined fellow Louisianian Michael Doucet, the famed fiddler who helped expose audiences around the world to Cajun music, and the other winners for the presentation yesterday on Capitol Hill. Afterward, Barthe and Doucet talked about how difficult the last few weeks have been.
What was lost? Barthe said he knows that some of the buildings he and his family worked on are still standing, but the fate of their handiwork isn't known. Barthe saw a picture of his shop in Newsweek, and he is sending his daughter, Trudy Barthe Charles, back in a couple of weeks to check on damage.
"I am not too anxious to go back," said Barthe, who is staying with relatives in Cypress, Tex., near Houston. And there is another reason, he admits with a laugh. He's heard that immunizations might be necessary. "I don't think I can handle that right now. I'll want everything to be sanitary," he said.
Doucet, who was on the road during the storm, has been raising money for his fellow musicians. Two members of his band, BeauSoleil, lost their homes in New Orleans. They camped out at Doucet's home in Lafayette and followed by radio the progress of what Doucet called "a man-made tragedy caused by Mother Nature."
Then the band hit the road for a West Coast tour, giving audiences the news from the Gulf and telling them about Katrina's impact on musicians who lost their homes, their instruments and the non-music jobs that help them make ends meet.
Doucet, 54, tall and tieless, with a shock of white hair and a neatly trimmed mustache and beard, has organized the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund. He is also urging people to give to Music Cares, an arm of the Grammy organization, and HEAL, a project of the Lafayette Arts Council. Doucet said it is going to take some time, but he is confident New Orleans will have a glorious comeback. "What brings the soul back to the city? Of course, it's the artists and the music," he said.
The other Heritage fellows are Eldrid Skjold Arntzen of Watertown, Conn., who practices a form of decorative carving developed in 16th- and 17th-century Norway; Grace Henderson Nez of Ganado, Ariz., a Navajo weaver; Hermina Albarran Romero of San Francisco, a paper-cutting artist and altarista; Chuck Brown of Brandywine, the father of Washington's go-go music; Jerry Grcevich of North Huntingdon, Pa., who plays the tamburitza and prim, Croatian instruments; Wanda Jackson of Oklahoma City, a rockabilly pioneer who also sings country and gospel; Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman of the Bronx, a Yiddish singer and poet; Albertina Walker of Chicago, one of the pioneers of gospel music; and James Ka'upena Wong, a traditional chanter from Waianae, Hawaii.
A special award, named for folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes, was given to Janette Carter, an Appalachian musician from Hiltons, Va., whose parents and Aunt Maybelle made up the famed Carter family.
Tonight at 7 the performers will appear at a free concert at Lisner Auditorium, hosted by Nick Spitzer, whose "American Routes" radio program has temporarily moved from New Orleans to Lafayette.