Portrait artist’s self-study joins Leah Chase image at Smithsonian

The process always starts simply, with the preparation of straw or the cutting of onions.

Or yellow squash.

It’s the yellow squash that’s most memorable. Gustave Blache III painted Leah Chase cutting it in her restaurant kitchen. It was around 6 a.m. when she started the day’s preparations. She was the first to show up at Dooky Chase’s restaurant in New Orleans. Probably the last to leave, too.

And in 2012, this painting was added to the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

The process may seem old-fashioned to some people, maybe even tedious. But customers don’t complain when the food reaches their tables at Dooky Chase.

Just as they don’t complain upon receiving an order of brooms and mops from the Lighthouse for the Blind in New Orleans. It’s where the visually impaired craft these household tools by hand, and Blache documented this process before moving on to Leah Chase.

“It’s all about the process,” Blache says.

He speaks from his home in Brooklyn. Well, take that back. He lives in Brooklyn, but the real home of his heart is his native New Orleans, where he graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts before earning his bachelor of fine arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in Savannah, Ga., and his master of fine arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Still, the place he’s been seen most lately is the news, not only with the Smithsonian’s 2012 acceptance of the Chase portrait but the institution’s 2013 acquisition of his “Self Portrait With Checkered Scarf” for its National Museum of African American History and Culture which opens in April 2015.

Both portraits are part of series, and even Blache’s series of self-portraits are a process study.

“I was studying shadows with my face as the backdrop,” he says of the self-portraits. “And I’d begun working on another series when I had to the opportunity to do the series on Leah Chase. She was in her 80s at the time, and I knew it was important to get to New Orleans and do this series now.”

Blache spent two years working on the Chase series, sketching and taking photographs for reference. The project resulted in a series of small-scale paintings that capture the behind-the-scenes story of Chase and the 72-year-old Orleans Avenue restaurant.

“There is no better representation of New Orleans than Leah Chase,” Blache says. “She is New Orleans.”

Dooky Chase has been highlighting art for years through the display of Leah Chase’s extensive collection of African-American art. Now, she’s not only a part of the local art scene but the national one, as well.

Blache is, too, for that matter.

“It’s an honor for an artist to have one piece in the Smithsonian’s collection, but it’s quite an achievement to have two,” Blache says. “It’s all come full circle. There’s Leah Chase, who represents New Orleans, and now there’s the self-portrait of the artist who painted her.”

Blache isn’t bragging. He’s humbled by it all, and he quickly guides the conversation back to where it began — with the process.

He’s in awe of the people he documents and grateful that they let him into their workplaces. They usually don’t see what they do as anything special or fascinating.

But they’re not seeing it through an artist’s eye.

Take the mop and broom makers, for instance. Blache was looking at a mop one day and began speculating on how it was made. He started making inquiries and was told there was a place in New Orleans where these things were handmade. Handmade, that is, 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.”

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 panels.

“But they wanted to be there,” Blache says. “And the gallery owner let them touch the panels. They were able to feel the brush strokes and images.”

There are so many other stories to tell here, maybe too many for one sitting. Blache is 36 and works at Simon Parkes Art Conservation in Manhattan. He can’t elaborate much on his current series except to say that there are plans to highlight it in a book.

“It’s going to be a monograph,” Blache says. “The plans are under way now, and we are thinking about an author.”

Then he throws out a hint: the paintings will be about a process.

It’s always about the process.