Philo Levi “Chief” Willey (1887—1980)
“Chief” Willey was born in Falls Village, Connecticut. He worked at many jobs in lumber camps, farming, the automobile business, and driving a team of horses for the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Willey served in World War 1 and moved to New Orleans when the Chevrolet company in which he was employed relocated there. In 1932 he became chief of security for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board where he remained until he retired in 1965. His coworkers gave him the nickname “Chief”. His second wife, Cecelia Seixas, an artist, encouraged Willey to paint as a retirement activity. He sold his first paintings in the historic Jackson Square in New Orleans where local artists congregate to display their work. His drawings and paintings, which captured the vitality of life in New Orleans, were immediately popular. Willey’s love of animals can also be found throughout his art. In the late 1970s Willey received recognition from Robert Bishop, then director of the Museum of American Folk Art. In 1981 Bishop arranged for him to have an exhibition at the State University of New York. Subsequently, his work has been included in many museum collections and folk art exhibitions, including “Pictured in My Mind: Contemporary American Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen,” which was seen locally at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln.