When James W. Johnson met the lover of the late artist Ted DeGrazia in a parking lot, he knew little about the man or his art.
Johnson first visited the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun four years ago for a concert by Spanish guitarist Domingo DeGrazia. By accident, he, along with his wife, Marilyn D. Johnson, arrived two hours early. It was enough time for DeGrazia’s reputation to capture the Johnsons’ attention and inspire the book “De Grazia: The Man and the Myths.”
“We were roaming around out in the parking area, and this woman came up to us with this straight, long, gray hair wearing what looked like a house dress, a turquoise men’s suit jacket and Nikes,” Marilyn said. “She started telling us all these stories about DeGrazia that were just charming, how he could take anything and turn it into art.”
That woman was Carol Locust, the mother of Domingo DeGrazia and Ted DeGrazia’s lover for the last decade of his life. She swept them into the gallery, pointing out her beloved’s handiwork. Her anecdotes about the eccentric artist fascinated the Johnsons.
Curiosity honed by a career in journalism, James Johnson, 76, wanted to know more. As he paged through the two coffee-table books at the gallery gift shop, he found the beautiful images of DeGrazia’s work eclipsed stories of the man behind the art.
No stranger to tracking down facts to weave a story, James decided to tackle a biography himself. In the fall of 2012, after more than two years of work, this longtime newspaperman finished the manuscript on DeGrazia, his seventh book.
Marilyn and James, a University of Arizona journalism graduate and former professor at the school, will discuss DeGrazia’s legacy on March 16 at the Tucson Festival of Books. The book, published by the University of Arizona Press, comes out on Thursday.
Before teaching at the UA, James Johnson spent 18 years at the Oakland Tribune in the San Francisco Bay Area. Later, during the teaching years, the couple spent summers at newspapers across the country, where he (and occasionally Marilyn) worked as a copy editor. In Tucson, he has worked part time as a copy editor for the Arizona Daily Star for 17 years.
In piecing together the story of DeGrazia — a man known for telling tall tales to reporters — Johnson relied heavily on his background in journalism, sifting through court records for divorce papers and thumbing through old city directories for addresses.
“I know where to go, I know what to do and I know what questions to ask,” he said. “That helped me. You’re telling a story. What’s the story? The story was, ‘This guy is a character.’ ”
Johnson calls DeGrazia a “Renaissance man” and notes in his book the tangible artistic legacy left behind: more than 20,000 paintings, ceramics and sculptures, more than 20 books, a dozen films and the design and construction of sites such as the Gallery in the Sun and the Mission in the Sun.
Never an artist to receive much critical acclaim, DeGrazia crafted an identity that appealed to his fans, many of them tourists. His paintings depicting Southwestern culture and Native Americans were mass-produced and often labeled “kitsch,” inspiring DeGrazia’s fixation with the future preservation of his work.
“I think the thing about DeGrazia is the layers in his personality,” Marilyn Johnson said. “He was driven to be a successful artist. ... People were just catching on that the way to become well-known was to be outrageous, and I think that’s what he was trying to do. I think also because he was an artist, he was trying to find his authentic painting style.”
The levels of DeGrazia’s identity, built on quirky mannerisms and far-fetched stories, made capturing the essence of the man nearly impossible. He embellished his drinking habits and how many wives and children he had, among other exaggerations about his personal life.
“I think most biographers walk away wondering if they really got in to know the man,” James Johnson said. “How do you ever know a person that closely? Who knows that person really well? His two wives and his lover, and they weren’t very forthcoming.”
Even in interviewing people who knew and remember DeGrazia, Johnson encountered an unwillingness to disclose details. In other books on his art and in his dealings with the press, DeGrazia controlled the information, sharing both truth and lies.
“To write a book about DeGrazia while DeGrazia was alive would have been impossible,” Marilyn said.
“He wouldn’t help,” James added.
Still, the amount of sources available for research forced Johnson to make decisions on what information to explore and what to skip. At the Gallery in the Sun, the DeGrazia Foundation made available to the Johnsons about 50 oral interviews, newspaper clippings, old Arizona Highways magazines and DeGrazia’s private papers, including mundane documents such as bank statements. He also did research in public records, at the Arizona Historical Society and in the archives of the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen.
“When you’ve been around as long as I have, you can almost sense what is a line and what is truth,” he said. DeGrazia "said he used that to protect his own privacy, so people didn’t pry into who he really was. He just threw a lot of junk out there, and they don’t know if he was real.”
It was this intrigue that first engaged the Johnsons when they met Carol Locust. She told them about a man who could make art out of copper pieces from toilet tanks and showed them flooring where DeGrazia had added slices of cholla cactus to stretch the concrete across more area.
“I found this whole thing just intriguing and fun, because not only was he interesting, but we RV so sometimes we travel and we’ll run into people who knew him,” Marilyn said.
This is their retirement. James Johnson did not spend long, disciplined hours on the book, but the subject matter still crept into table conversation and accompanied him on his morning bike rides — an hour ideal for marshaling the facts.
Although Marilyn edited her husband’s three books on coaches and teams in football, basketball and baseball, this biography on DeGrazia fascinated her as other projects did not. When the time for editing came, she knew DeGrazia well.
“I tend to write too much like a journalist,” James said. “Marilyn has taken creative writing, and so she can put that kind of style into my writing.”
They decided early in the process to leave any assessment of DeGrazia’s art to the critics — this would be a biography on the man. His legacy, they found, came more from his following outside of Arizona and the accessibility of his work than any elite reputation.
“He’s an important stop in this town,” James Johnson said of the work on display at the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun. “You pick up all the tourism books and what to do in Tucson, and DeGrazia is always there. You can’t miss him. He helped bring people to Arizona.”