Chef Leah Chase has led a charmed life. She and her husband Edgar “Dooky” Chase established their legendary Creole restaurant on Orleans Avenue in 1941. Over the years, Leah has served three U.S. Presidents, many foreign leaders, and countless celebrities. Along the way, she became a patron of the arts and made lasting friendships with many important African American Artists. We had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Chase one afternoon in October to discuss her amazing collection.
NCM: Do you keep in touch with the artists in your collection?
Leah Chase: I do love to keep in touch with them, but my best friends that were great artists are now dead. Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence were my good friends and contemporaries.
Jacob Lawrence was the first African American to have a show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Jacob really introduced me to the arts. My friend Celestine Cook, who was the first African American woman to sit on the board at NOMA, brought me to meet him at that show. She convinced NOMA to bring Jacob Lawrence to New Orleans.
Jacob’s speech during that show really moved me because, as he talked about his life, I realized that we came up through the same era. He came up under the WPA, (the Works Progress Administration) during the Great Depression. I came up under the WPA as well. I could relate to him and we became good friends. His wife, Gwendolyn Knight, was a good artist too. Unfortunately they are both gone now.
Then I met John Biggers. What I liked about John was that he had a lot of respect for women. You can see it if you look at his work around these walls. If you look at the painting “Upper Room” that is hanging here in the restaurant. We know the upper room was where the Apostles waited for Christ to come. And the upper room is where Christ appeared after he rose from the dead. John Biggers painted women holding up that room. He wanted to show the strength and the power of women.
I also love his piece called “Autumn Twins”. I always thought that represented me and my husband Dooky. It makes me think of a couple growing old together. I imagined us getting old together, sitting on a swing. We worked together a long time before he died two years ago. We were married 71 years.
When I first started collecting art, I bought an Elizabeth Catlett. Elizabeth was one of the foremost African American female sculptors. She sculpted pieces in Louis Armstrong park. She created “Two Generations” which is in the main dining room of our restaurant.
The Louis Armstong mixed media piece in our Gold room was made by my granddaughter, Chase Kamata. She’s also a great jazz singer. Her mother is also a jazz singer and the vocal coach at the university here.
I was also good friends with the artist John Scott. He was just like my child. He used to come over here all the time. I’m old school and I believe you should go to church on Sunday. I used to preach this to him. When he died, I went to the memorial ceremony and realized the spirituality that was present in his work. His work was his prayer.
You see a mixture of art in these rooms because these pieces all speak to me. There aren’t any specific themes in the way I have them arranged. Some are by well known artists and some are by family members.
NCM: Is there any work of art that you wish you owned?
Leah: I wish I owned a nice big piece by Charlie White, who was Elizabeth Catlett’s first husband. Elizabeth and I were great friends. After she left Charlie, she married a Mexican artist named Franscisco Mora. I have a piece by him as well. He was a good artist too.
Elizabeth moved to Mexico to get away from all of the injustice towards African Americans here in the United States. But after she moved to Mexico, she also took a whipping down there! They treated her bad and she went through a lot to just stand up for what she thought was right.
I also wish I owned a Romare Bearden, who was another great African American artist. He created a lot of collages. If I’d known then what I know today, I would have bought a Romare Bearden. Romare had a piece called “Morning of the Rooster” which I could have had for $750.
NCM: How old were you then when you really started to get interested in art?
Leah: I was already 27 years old and working in this restaurant. When Celestine Cook got off the board at NOMA, she came to me and she said, “Leah, I’m going to nominate you to take my place.”
I never thought that I had a chance at being voted in because the other person nominated for the spot was a wealthy member of Ida Kohlmeyer’s family. He had a large art collection and knew all of the right people. But they did vote me onto the board and it was a very exciting time.
All of the art pictured in this article is on display at Dooky Chase restaurant at 2301 Orleans Avenue in New Orleans, LA.