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Southern food meets art for the soul

A work by New Orleans artist Bruce Brice. (Photo by Linda Friedman)

Leah Chase is a remarkable woman. Anyone who has ever met her, spoken to her, or been the recipient of her generosity knows that. Most of those conversations, no doubt, have been around the traditions of Southern food. After all, as the doyenne of Dooky Chase restaurant, few people know more about that than this 88-year-old restaurateur who famously told Barack Obama not to put any hot sauce in her gumbo, thank you, until he had, at least, tasted it.

If you were lucky, you might have been within hearing on a day when Chase recalled inspiring stories about the dark days of segregation, when her restaurant was the only place in New Orleans where white and black people could meet. A big believer that you can get anything done over a bowl of gumbo, she supported many a courageous initiative between like-minded New Orleanians over hot and spicy spoonfuls, even initiating a few projects herself.

But the one thing Chase never anticipated was that she would become known as an art collector. That, however, is just what she is, and a very knowledgeable collector at that.

From her very first acquisition – a work by the late African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, a gift from her husband, Dooky — to this very day, Leah Chase has been hooked on art. And not just for her personal satisfaction. No, she’s on a mission: She wants the world to love her art, too.

And so by the dozens, paintings and prints hang on the walls of her iconic restaurant. One would be hard-pressed to think of another restaurant in America whose walls are adorned with the finest interpretations of outstanding African-American artists, from Jacob Lawrence to Elizabeth Catlett, John Scott to John Biggers.

First introduced to art in the late 1960s by Celestine Cook, a brilliant, albeit autocratic, New Orleans social and civic leader and the first African-American to sit on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art, Leah Chase became an avid student.

“So many people didn’t understand Celestine,” she recalls. “Even in our own African-American community, they didn’t understand what she was saying. I praise God that I listened to her; she was a wonderful woman. Not that even I truly understood what she was saying at the time. But she was right: Art really does bring you into a whole new world.”

As time went by, Chase understood more and more about art and began purchasing works that spoke to her personally. Then Celestine Cook nominated her to the board of NOMA.

“She did, she put my name up,” Chase says. “And there is one man I will appreciate all my life and that is (the late) Moise Steeg. The board was tied between me and one other person, and because of that, as chairman, he had to vote, and he voted for me. It took guts at the time to do that and I’ll never forget it.”

That act of courage during a difficult era so inspired Leah Chase that she not only supports the museum, but also remains active in promoting art and artists throughout this community.

So take a look at some of her personal favorites, which accompany this story, and then go see the rest for yourself at Dooky Chase Restaurant, 2301 Orleans Avenue.

Oh, and stay for lunch; the catfish and the fried chicken are pretty great works of art, too.

Leah Chase talks about her art with Sharon Litwin on Notes from New Orleans, airing weekly on WWNO. For details, click here.


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