Gustave Blache III's paintings are always about the journey.
It could be one step in cleaning curtains or, more famously, Leah Chase's daily routine in her famous New Orleans restaurant.
He spent many hours with Chase, meeting her in early morning hours at the back door of Dooky Chase's. She was always the first to get there, and she'd immediately launch into chopping onions or yellow squash.
It's Blache's paintings of Chase cutting up squash that many people will recognize, even if they don't know he painted it. The painting was added to the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in 2012 and still hangs there. But most of the others in the series can be found through June 4 in the Louisiana Art & Science Museum's exhibit, "A Work in Process: Paintings by Gustave Blache III."
The show features the Chase series and Blache's art documentation of the mop makers in New Orleans' Lighthouse for the Blind, Curtain Cleaning and, most recently, conservators' work at Simon Parkes Art Conservation in New York.
Blache has worked at Simon Parkes since 2005, relocating to New York after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his home in New Orleans. Now, he returns to Louisiana with this survey-like show that also includes examples of his earlier portraits.
"The museum isn't calling it a survey, but that's really what it is," Blache says. "It's an overview of my work, and (curator) Elizabeth (Weinstein) has done an amazing job of gathering all of these paintings for this show. They belong to different collectors, and she was able to get them to loan their work for this."
Today, the art is going up on the walls at the LASM. Blache stands in the center of the main gallery upstairs where the art conservation series will hang. He wants to make sure the paintings chronologically match the story he's tried to tell.
But Weinstein sees a few problems in the paintings' sizes and dominant colors. True, they should tell the story, she says, but overall aesthetic balance also is important.
"See?" Blache later says. "It's all about the process, and today it's about the installation process. This is my part of the process, so it all comes full circle here."
Blache makes his way to the main downstairs gallery, where museum staffers have started hanging the mop makers, curtain cleaners and Leah Chase series. He remembers the story behind each painting.
"If you look at the wall in this painting of the mop makers, you'll see the bar along the wall they use as a guide while walking through the room," Blache says, picking up one of the paintings and pointing to the detail. "When I first heard the name 'Lighthouse,' I didn't know it was a place that employed the blind."
Blache learned about it after telling a friend he was interested in painting a series on broom makers.
"Who makes brooms?" he asked. "Does anybody?"
The friend couldn't answer, but did direct him to the business where mops were handmade by blind people.
"I couldn’t believe it,” Blache says. “I never knew this place was in New Orleans, and I was amazed by what they did. I know I would have hurt my hands doing what these workers were doing. And they were doing it without sight.”
While he couldn't sketch on site, for fear of getting in the way of the workers, Blache was allowed to take photographs and speak with the mop makers.
"Talking to the people I'm painting is just as important as drawing and painting them," Blache says. "It makes a difference in how I paint them, and it definitely makes a difference in the story."
Blache was represented at the time by Cole Pratt Gallery in New Orleans, which exhibited the series. The workers attended opening night, knowing they would not be able to see their likenesses on Blache’s canvases.
“But I wanted them to come," Blache says. "And they wanted to be there, and we let them touch the paintings. They put their hands on the paintings they were in, and they were able to feel the brush strokes and images.”
The workers evacuated to Alabama in the aftermath of Katrina. They later returned, and their work continues in Blache's paintings.
Just as Leah Chase's restaurant routine is forever captured.
Chase once joked that she told Blache he could paint her if he would make her look like Beyoncé. But there's only one Beyoncé, just as there's only one Leah Chase, who arrives at her restaurant at 6 a.m. each day.
Blache was working on his art conservation series when his agent advised him to tackle the Chase series.
"He'd eaten at Dooky Chase on a visit to New Orleans, and he'd had a a chance to talk to Leah," Blache says. "He asked me if I knew of the restaurant, and, of course I knew it. New Orleans is my hometown, and Dooky Chase is a legend. Leah was in her 80s at the time, and I knew it was important to get to New Orleans and do this series.”
Blache spent almost three years working on the Chase series, sketching and taking photographs as she worked. The project resulted in a series of small-scale paintings that capture the behind-the-scenes story of Chase and the 76-year-old Orleans Avenue restaurant.
“There is no better representation of New Orleans than Leah Chase,” Blache says. “She is New Orleans.”
Chase attended the March 18 opening reception for Blache's show, as did staff from Simon Parkes.
The visitors represented a merging of the two places Blache calls home. He was born in San Bernardino, California, but moved back to his parents’ hometown of New Orleans at age 6, where he attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Blache, who was born in 1977, earned his bachelor's degree in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in Savannah, Georgia, and later his master's in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York. At 24, he staged his first solo show at Island Weiss Gallery in New York City, and his work has since been in a major solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art as well as other solo and group exhibitions at galleries and museum across the country.