Stolen paining of Preservation Hall’s Sweet Emma discovered | Keith Spera

Who stole Sweet Emma?

That question haunted New Orleans artist MJ Robitaille for 13 years, ever since her life-size plywood painting of Sweet Emma Barrett, a jazz pianist, singer and Preservation Hall icon, disappeared from the 2011 Voodoo Music Experience in City Park.

Sweet Emma, Robitaille assumed, was gone forever. And then, in March, she received an email from a stranger with the subject line, “Artwork in the woods.”

Sweet Emma, the sender wrote, had been found, propped up against a tree next to a walking trail in a forest in Norwood, Georgia.

How did she get there? Where had she been all these years?

Sweet Emma isn’t saying. But she’s finally home.

A Voodoo mystery

The real-life Sweet Emma Barrett was a self-taught jazz piano player and singer. She started performing in the 1920s and worked with various jazz orchestras and bands until she found a permanent home at Preservation Hall, which opened in 1961.

Paintings of early members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, including pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, on display near the Preservation Hall Stage at the Voodoo Music Experience in New Orleans. 

She often wore a red skullcap and was known as “the Bell Gal” because of her matching red garters festooned with bells, which jingled when she performed. She released a handful of albums, toured intermittently and was a fixture at Preservation Hall up until her death in 1983 at age 85.

In 2008, Preservation Hall creative director Ben Jaffe commissioned Robitaille to paint four musicians from the Hall’s early years, including Sweet Emma, as well as the Hall’s signature bass drum, on plywood. The totems would decorate the Preservation Hall “village” at the Voodoo Music Experience.

For the next three years, the paintings were stationed near the Preservation Hall stage at Voodoo. Otherwise, they lived in the courtyard at Preservation Hall amid the foliage alongside the ancient brick walls, “lurking from behind the banana leaves,” as Robitaille put it.

Never intended to be outside for so long, they started to crack and fade. In 2010, Robitaille took them home, touched them up and added a coat of marine varnish.

In 2011, they were back at Voodoo. Robitaille had a booth at that year’s festival where she sold artwork. She arrived early one morning to set up and realized Sweet Emma was missing.

“That was the first thing I noticed: what the f*** happened to Emma?”

No one knew. There were no clues. Sweet Emma was gone without a trace.

An unexpected discovery

She stayed gone until March 19. Out of the blue, Robitaille received an email from a woman in Georgia named Ana Maria Paramo. While walking in the woods near her home in Norwood, she’d come across something unusual: a life-size painting of an elderly woman wearing a red skull cap and matching red garters with bells.

When Robitaille first created her Preservation Hall totems, she used a paint pen to inscribe her email address on the side of each.

Paramo noticed the faded email on the side of the Sweet Emma totem and decided to reach out to Robitaille. She emailed a photo of Sweet Emma leaning against a tree and wrote, “Hi. I came across this piece of yours in the woods by my house. What’s the story?”

Robitaille was stunned, immediately writing back, “OMG! She’s alive!!”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Robitaille said. “I was walking around dumbfounded for days, telling everyone I saw. It’s such a mystery.”

Paramo could only shed a little light on the mystery. Her neighbors had spotted Sweet Emma in the woods a couple months earlier. But Paramo was apparently the first person to take a closer look, discover Robitaille’s email and set in motion Sweet Emma’s journey home.

Another question: Sweet Emma is in great shape compared to her plywood colleagues, who mostly hang out in the Preservation Hall courtyard and occasionally turn up on the venue’s balcony. They’re “falling apart,” Robitaille said. One even has mushrooms growing on it.

So obviously, Sweet Emma spent most of her missing years indoors. “Emma looks like she did the day she was stolen,” Robitaille said. “She must have been cared for or kept inside.”

Exactly where, nobody knows. But Robitaille has her suspicions.

“I initially, and still, feel that a drunken hooligan frat boy thought it would be funny to take her back to the frat house and play quarters off of her. Then it’s been sitting in a frat house all these years, or handed down between college kids, until somebody got creeped out, didn’t want her looking at them, and took her to the woods and left her.”

One more wrinkle to the story: In 2012, the year after Emma was stolen, Preservation Hall commissioned Robitaille to create likenesses of the then-current members of the band. The new totems went on display at the 2012 Voodoo Fest. But in what almost seemed like a copycat caper, someone spirited away her painting of drummer Joe Lastie.

It hasn’t been seen since 2012. But given Sweet Emma’s miraculous return 13 years later, Robitaille has hope: “Maybe Joe will come home too.”

Sweet Emma’s journey

After Robitaille posted about Sweet Emma’s discovery on Instagram, Christine Legnon, a friend and former colleague at the New Orleans House of Blues who now lives in Atlanta, offered to drive Emma home.

Turns out Legnon owns a spa next to Paramo’s office. Paramo handed off Sweet Emma to Legnon, who drove her back to the Big Easy just in time for the 2024 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Coincidentally, the actual Sweet Emma was the subject of a tribute at the festival’s Economy Hall Tent on May 3 that featured singers Yolanda Robinson and Kiki Chapman with the Lars Edegran Band. It was as if Jazz Fest had anticipated the painting’s homecoming.

“I just never imagined she would find her way home,” Jaffe said, “but she did!”

For her part, Robitaille is also tickled that Sweet Emma is back. She thinks it would be fun if school kids did an essay project titled “Where Did Emma Go?” and made up stories about her adventures. Kind of like a traveling garden gnome, with a New Orleans jazz slant.

“It’s a happy story,” Robitaille said. It shows “there’s hope in the world, and a whole lot of mystery.”

“It would be great to find out what happened to her. But I like the mystery, too.”