The snooty art critics of the world never had much use for Arizona’s most famous artist, the late Ted DeGrazia.
The Tucsonan didn’t have use for them either. He fashioned himself into an artist of and for the people. While never selling out, he sold his work to the admiring masses and made a fortune along the way.
Not too shabby for a boy born to Italian immigrants in the mining camp of Morenci on June 14, 1909.
Friday, the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun opens its Centennial Retrospective featuring 100 significant examples of his work.
If you think you know DeGrazia because you’ve seen his oils of Indian children, think again. The sweep of his life’s work is astonishing for both the range of mediums and styles that he worked in – from oils, watercolors and sketches to ceramics, textiles and stained glass.
“We’re hoping that people get more of an idea of the breadth of what he did, in terms of working in all these different mediums and also that there is so much more to it than the reproductions that people grew up with,” said curator Kristine Peashock said. “For us, it’s a matter of getting people though the door. Then they can see for themselves.”
The retrospective will include many of the old favorites in the collection, including the 1957 “Los Niños” oil painting of children dancing in a circle, an image famously reproduced into a best-selling UNICEF card in 1960. But Peashock also has pulled lesser known works from the gallery’s vault, including, on public exhibition for the first time, “New York,” an undated oil depicting a street sweeper in in the foreground of a cityscape of grimy, gray skyscrapers.
By the gallery’s account, DeGrazia, who died in Tucson in 1982, graduated from Morenci High School at age 23 and “hitched a ride to Tucson in 1933 to enroll at the University of Arizona with $15 in his pocket.”
In 1941, Arizona Highways began publishing DeGrazia’s artwork, helping to launch his career and introduce legions of readers around the world to the beauty of southern Arizona’s native people and cultures.
In 1942, he studied under Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Rivera was so impressed with the young man that he sponsored a weeklong show of DeGrazia’s work at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Orozco predicted DeGrazia would someday be one of America’s best painters.
But throughout his career, DeGrazia’s standing with the critics would be inversely proportional to his popularity with the masses.
“They thought that DeGrazia was simplistic. He painted little children without eyes. To them, he wasn’t a real artist. They didn’t see any value in what he was doing, said Lance Laber, executive director of the Gallery in the Sun.
“I think,” Peashock said, “that the art critics thought that was all he did and that it was kind of kitschy and didn’t look beyond that to the other work he had done.”
DeGrazia, she said, was a stubborn man who didn’t like art world politics. In the 1950s, he began building his own gallery in what was then the far outskirts of Tucson. The main gallery of the Gallery in the Sun, now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, opened in 1965.
“He said, ‘If nobody wants to display my work, I’m going to build my own museum to display my work,’” Peashock said.
At the gallery, which houses some 15,000 DeGrazia originals and attracts more than 50,000 visitors each year, you can see his more serious works. Among them are paintings that document the Yaqui Easter celebration and the stories of Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Kino and Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
DeGrazia was as much a historian and anthropologist as he was a painter, Laber said.
And let’s not dismiss his paintings of Native American children as mere kitsch. If you take a closer at these paintings in the environment DeGrazia designed for them, you’ll see they are more than just cute. In those paintings, as in all his work, he captured the sun-soaked pastels and swirling energy of the desert and the unique beauty of its natives.
“I always thought that DeGrazia’s work was beautiful,” said Bernard Siquieros, administrator of the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center & Museum in Topawa, about 75 miles southwest of Tucson. “I thought just from his paintings that he saw something special in the children. . . . In fact, I was just commenting about one of our grandsons, who is 8 months old, and they came to visit my wife and me on Sunday. He had those big round eyes and I said, ‘You look like a DeGrazia baby.’ . . . I thought this must have been what DeGrazia saw in many of the children, their beautiful eyes.”
In some of DeGrazia’s paintings, the children have no facial features, as Laber noted. In others, the children have dark dots for eyes and mouths that look like sweet, black gumdrops.
DeGrazia’s work has yet to get the respect it merits from the art world, Laber said.
But his reign as Arizona’s favorite artist of the people remains unchallenged.
Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and email@example.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.
IF YOU GO
What: “DeGrazia, 100 years, 100 Works”
Where: DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, 6300 N. Swan Road
When: Opening reception is 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.