His art still hangs on the walls — and, yes, refrigerators — of many a Tucsonan. • Gone more than 25 years, Ted DeGrazia, Tucson's most celebrated artist, would be turning 100 on June 14. • Next weekend, the Gallery in the Sun he crafted from adobe blocks will be celebrating with music, food and a retrospective of his work — work that goes way beyond the blank-faced urchins who made him famous. • Through his art, his deeds and the memories of those who knew him, we look at the man behind the fame — a man both simple and complicated.
He's been called a scamp and a loving father, an artistic genius and a purveyor of kitsch.
More than a quarter-century past his death, Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia still claims the title of Tucson's most famous — and no doubt most prolific — artist.
His black-eyed urchins — replicated in everything from refrigerator magnets to greeting cards — still spark instant recognition from those who wouldn't know a Picasso from a Rockwell.
Every year, his Gallery in the Sun hauls in close to $500,000 in sales, ranging from $1.50 magnets to $36,000 works of original art. The endowment for the DeGrazia Foundation, established in 1977, now hovers at around $10 million, the gallery property is valued at $10 million and the worth of DeGrazia's paintings is around $40 million, says executive director Lance Laber.
Bigger than life when he lived, DeGrazia appears to have cheated anonymity even in death.
Amble through his Gallery in the Sun — on the land where he lived, worked and died — and you instantly feel his presence, from the oversize portraits done of him, to his paintings on the walls, to a running documentary — much of it narrated by the artist himself.
Also nestled into this Foothills compound on North Swan Road is the tiny home where he and second wife, Marion, first lived. Here, too, is the adobe chapel DeGrazia built. Not far away is his grave, marked with stones from Morenci, the town where he was born 100 years ago next Sunday.
A flurry of activities next weekend will commemorate the artist's birth, his life, his art.
Born June 14, 1909, to Italian immigrants in the Territorial Arizona mining camp of Morenci, young Ted and his six siblings traveled to Italy with their parents in 1920, after the mine closed.
But even before then, DeGrazia's interest in art had been kindled, as he created figurines from the clay in the hills surrounding Morenci. "His first work of art was the head of Christ, baked in his mother's oven in Morenci," says Susan Vance, marketing director of DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun.
By 1925, the family was back in Morenci, where its patriarch returned to the reopened mine and 16-year-old Ted entered first grade, relearning the English he'd lost while in Italy.
That same year, young DeGrazia was at the easel. Two of his paintings from 1925, "Indian Faces" and "Four Horses," are now on exhibit at his gallery.
After graduating from high school at age 23, he briefly went to work in the mine, then in 1933 hitched a ride to the University of Arizona with $15 in his pocket and a trumpet in hand.
Here, in Tucson, DeGrazia would lead a band and blow his horn to help pay his way through school. Not long after enrolling, DeGrazia met coed Alexandra Diamos, whose family owned several movie theaters in Southern Arizona, including the Fox Tucson.
They married in 1936 and moved to Bisbee, where DeGrazia continued to paint while managing the family's Lyric Theater. In 1938, his first child, Lucia, was born, followed 17 months later by a son, Nicholas, and then another daughter, Kathie, in 1942.
Later that same year, he and Alexandra traveled to Mexico City, where they met muralist Diego Rivera and his artist wife, Frida Kahlo. Six weeks later, DeGrazia returned for a two-month internship with Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, another muralist.
Back home, DeGrazia continued at the UA, earning three degrees in the mid-1940s, including a master of arts whose thesis was "Art and Its Relation to Music in Music Education."
Although his work was first spotlighted in Arizona Highways in 1941, it drew little interest from other galleries. And so in 1944, DeGrazia, along with his Yaqui friends, cobbled together an adobe studio on the southeast corner of North Campbell Avenue and East Prince Road.
By then, his marriage was in trouble. In 1946 he and Alexandra divorced. A year later, in the jungles of Mexico, he married Marion Sheret, a New York sculptor who had met DeGrazia after moving to Tucson in 1941 with her young son, Hal Grieve.
"They went all the way to Guatemala in a Model-A Ford. They just wanted to soak up the ambience of Mexico," says Grieve, who now lives in the home where DeGrazia and his late mother once lived.
In 1952, DeGrazia and Marion bought 10 acres in the Foothills on North Swan Road, where he and a few Yaqui friends erected an adobe mission — the first edifice in a sprawling compound that would include his Gallery in the Sun, which opened in 1965.
Long before then, DeGrazia's style had evolved from the vivid oils of Mexican scenes and peasantry to more subdued pastels.
In the summer of 1949, he visited several Southwest Indian reservations, reported the Star, noting, "His choice of coloring has changed, too."
More and more, Native Americans were figuring in his work, as he visited the reservations and made lifelong friends there.
He also did some sculpture, as well as ceramics and jewelry. Working with one of the largest dress-goods manufacturers in the country, he created designs in the early '50s that would adorn skirts sold in department stores such as Levy's, a family-owned Tucson business last housed in El Con Mall.
"Los Niños," DeGrazia's 1957 oil of dancing children, became UNICEF's official holiday card in 1960. It sold in the millions worldwide.
Fame — which the artist assiduously courted — lapped at his easel from then on. He hobnobbed with politicians on Capitol Hill. He gave painting lessons in his studio to actor Broderick Crawford. He appeared on NBC's "Today" show, working up a painting in record time.
Penniless during his early years, DeGrazia gave away a fortune later on, especially to the poor and downtrodden.
But he drew the line when it came to the government. Protesting federal inheritance taxes, DeGrazia gathered up 100 paintings valued at more than $1 million in 1976, set out on horseback into the Superstition Mountains and burned the lot.
Reporters from The Wall Street Journal to People magazine covered the event.
But for all his love of the limelight, DeGrazia lived the simple life, dressing in jeans and dusty boots and retiring early each night in the home he had created in the desert foothills.
And home is where he would die at age 73 on Sept. 17, 1982, after a long bout with cancer.
He was buried in a plain pine box beneath the desert floor — with his obituary published in The New York Times.
Such were the divergent, often contradictory worlds Ted DeGrazia inhabited.