Photo by Laura Denyes. Painting by Martha Wright Ambrose.
Decatur at Ursuline
Before he restored his first house, Scott Veazey was a makeup artist and aesthetician. “I was making really good money, earning a decent living,” he said. “But in the early nineties, you could buy houses for eight or ten thousand dollars. I started in Algiers Point. It became an addiction almost.”
For the past twenty-plus years, Veazey has bought old properties in the New Orleans area, rehabilitated them, and sold them—to date, about one hundred houses and counting.
He’s found a few treasures in old houses—antique furniture and appliances, photographs, an iron gate—but he really hit a gold mine in 2003. That’s when Veazey bought a house in Nine Mile Point, on the West Bank, and was astonished to discover a cache of work by Martha Wright Ambrose (1914—2000), a talented, but virtually unknown, regional artist.
The house was built in 1953 by Martha and her husband Jack Ambrose. Veazey had visited it often when he lived on the same street, next door to Martha’s brother and sister-in-law.
About six weeks after closing, Veazey drove to the house on a rainy Sunday. As he stepped into the dark, leaky garage, he spied a collection of oil paintings, ink sketches, and watercolors haphazardly stacked on the floor and on shelves. Flipping through them, he quickly realized that he had come upon hundreds of works by Martha and a few pieces by Jack, who was also an artist.
“The weather was terrible,” recalled Veazey in an interview at his Tremé home last December. “I didn’t want to leave the art inside the house, because it was damp, too.”
He pulled his car into a connected carport and carefully removed some five hundred pieces of art from the garage. “Another two, three, four months and it would have all been destroyed,” he said.
Back in New Orleans, “I waited for the rain to stop, and then I took this entire art collection into my living room. It took hours to go through it. But it was exciting.”
Along with works by Martha and Jack were a few pieces Martha had collected, some by artists she had studied with. Veazey enlisted the help of restoration artist Blake VonderHaar and framer Sarah Bernard, who cleaned and restored the work and put it into suitable frames. The process is ongoing. “I am still having some pieces framed, and there are still some oils to be cleaned,” he said.
Veazey sold the Ambrose house to his sister and brother-in-law in 2008. He left some sixty works of art by Martha on the walls. (Another several hundred are in storage.)
Scott Veazey standing next to one of the hundreds of paintings he found by Martha Wright Ambrose.
Approximately eighty works by Martha and Jack Ambrose hang in Veazey’s house. The stairwell is home to oil portraits, including two of Martha’s mother and several of her sister-in-law. “Every room in this house has work by Martha hanging in it,” said Veazey.
In the spring of 2005, writer Roulhac Toledano took a group from the Art Institute of Chicago to visit Veazey’s restored house. Veazey was familiar with Toledano’s work as coauthor of the New Orleans Architecture series published by Pelican Press. “I have used them as reference books for years,” he said. “The first thing I did when I purchased a house was check to see if it was in the books.”
When Toledano entered Veazey’s house, her eye went straight to the art, particularly watercolors of the French Quarter that hang in the kitchen. “She couldn’t believe that she had never heard of this well-trained and talented artist,” said Veazey. “A couple of weeks later, she called me and said she thought we should write a book about Martha.”
Veazey immediately agreed, in part because he wanted to tell the very personal story of his friendship with Martha, who he’d known almost from birth. “My parents bought the house in 1960. Martha’s brother lived next door. When I was about four or five, Martha would ride her bicycle over to see him.”
Photo by Laura Denyes. Painting by Martha Wright Ambrose.
Dauphine Street, French Quarter
Martha was newly widowed then; her husband had died in a car crash in 1961. She conducted art classes at her house, sometimes in her vast front yard. “We’d ride by on our bikes and see her out there painting,” recalled Veazey. “She was a real artist—kind of flighty and eccentric. She was a mystery.
“She believed in reincarnation; she did transcendental meditation; she was a vegetarian. She was New Age before there was such a thing. And she had about thirty or forty cats and dogs. People would drop them off at her house and she would rescue them.
“She was smart, a good influence on me. She was the first artist I ever knew. It looked intriguing.
“When I was eighteen or nineteen, I went to her house one day and she was burning paintings and watercolors. She said they weren’t up to her standards. I asked her to let me have them, and she gave me a dozen of them.”
Veazey recalled that sometime in the Sixties, Martha developed a lung condition, possibly severe bronchitis from exposure to turpentine. “She was very, very sick,” he said. “She almost died. After she recovered, she stopped painting oils and concentrated on watercolors.”
Toward the end of Martha’s life, said Veazey, “I lost track of her.” Ambrose died in 2000 at age eighty-six, but Veazey learned of her death only after her funeral.
“She was a real artist—kind of flighty and eccentric. She was a mystery.
He searched for people who had known Ambrose and found Martha Guthrie, a friend who had written Ambrose’s obituary. “She put me in touch with some of Martha’s students, all accomplished artists who spoke of her like she was a saint. She really wanted to pass on her knowledge.”
Little by little, Martha’s story emerged. Born in Guatemala in 1914, she moved to New Orleans with her family at age eight. She attended art school there for a year but gave it up for lack of funds. An aspiring actress, she moved to New York but met little success. She had more luck as an artist, enrolling in the Art Students League in 1944. There she met her future husband Jack Ambrose, whom she married in 1946.
Veazey and his friend Eddie Marroquin, a professional photographer, searched for some of the houses and scenes Martha had painted, and Marroquin photographed them for the book.
“We left here at seven in the morning so we could take pictures of places when they were not full of people,” said Veazey. “We took fifteen paintings with us. We stood where Martha stood while she was painting. We got the exact angles. The houses still look pretty much the same as when she painted them.”
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press published the book last September in a lavishly illustrated large-format paperback. Martha Wright Ambrose: The Rediscovery of a Southern Regional Artist also includes information about other New Orleans artists as well as nationally known painters with whom Martha studied.
One chapter, titled “Martha’s Turn,” examines the turning point in her career. Veazey said the material for that chapter came from an unexpected source. “I created a website about Martha,” he said. In 2011, he was contacted by Marinth Miller, of Bluffton, S.C., who had seen the website. Miller had inherited three paintings by Ambrose as well as correspondence and photographs. She sent the papers and photos to Veazey, who learned that in 1961 Ambrose had had a one-woman show in Chicago, enabling her work to be seen by a wider audience.
“We were well into the book when this popped up,” said Veazey. “That chapter could not have been written without this information.
“So many things fell into place. I really feel like Martha was guiding me.”