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Friday, December 20, 2013

Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia

Ted DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun, outside Tuscon, Arizona. opened in 1965.
When a collector of art purchases a painting or sculpture from a living artist, he or she is buying more than an attractive manifestation of that artists creative impulses. Obviously the buyer probably likes the piece itself or else they wouldn't even consider the purchase. But that's only half the equation. The collector is also "buying" the artist's "story." Some might call it the artist's "persona." That story begins with some form of encapsulated biography, followed by one or more "artist's statements," often having evolved over many years. Then there's the artist's catalogue raisonne, which is a comprehensive list of the artist's life's work, usually compile posthumously--a rather dry listing of dates and descriptions of every scrap of paper or canvas the artist may reliably be considered as having touched. For ancient artists, that list is understandably short. In modern times, as history has gotten better and better at recording itself, and artists have gotten better and better at making stuff, the catalogue raisonne can grow to voluminous proportions. In any case, the more interesting and unusual all this compiled data, the more intriguing becomes the persona, and the more collectible (and salable), becomes that artists work. Of course, being dead helps in that regard too.
Navajo Family, Ted DeGrazia
Ted DeGrazia Self-portrait, 1947.
He was never much in demand as
a portrait artist.
For example, Ettore DeGrazia has an incredible persona. "Incredible" is often used quite casually without regard to its literal meaning--unbelievable. However, in this case, DeGrazia's "story" is truly incredible in the most unbelievable sense of the word. Briefly, he was born in 1909 to Italian immigrant parents working in the Morenci, Arizona, copper mines (before Arizona became a state in 1912). When young Ettore was eleven, the Morenci mines closed, forcing his father to take his family back to southern Italy. There the young boy became fascinated with Italian cathedral art. In 1925, the Morenci mines reopened; the DeGrazia family returned. The only problem for Etorre was that any English he had learned as a child, he'd forgotten. At the age of sixteen, he found himself back in the first grade. Some artists may claim to have worked their way through junior high and high school...but elementary school? It was during this time, as his teachers found his name hard to pronounced, that he picked up the nickname, "Ted." Ted was 23 when he finally graduated from high school. The outlook was bleak. It was 1932. The only area employment was underground mining, working from before the sun rose to after the sun set, six days a week. It was not the life any would-be artist would tolerate. So, with fifteen dollars in his pocket, he hitched a ride to Tucson and the University of Arizona, attending classes during the day, playing trumpet in a jazz band at night, and working for the university as a landscaper to pay tuition.
DeGrazia's University of Arizona mural design, 1942
--nothing a coat of whitewash wouldn't fix.
Ted DeGrazia took no chances with his education. He studied both art and music, hoping to teach either on or the other, perhaps even both. With a bachelor's degree in hand, he married, became a father (Lucia, born in 1940), and supported his family by working in his father-in-law's chain of movie theaters. It was a meager existence, not much better than mining copper. Some of his paintings were published around 1941 in Arizona Highways magazine, and through them he came to the notice of the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, who accepted him as an apprentice. A letter from Rivera apparently helped him avoid the WW II draft. Having learned fresco painting, DeGrazia returned to his alma mater to paint a ceiling mural, a rather dark affair depicting "the power of the press," replete with skulls, snakes slithering over textbooks, and expressionism flowing all over the place, bearing political overtones hardly less socialistic than those of Rivera, his mentor. His only compensation was the cost of his supplies. When he was done, the University took one look and hated it. During summer break, it was whitewashed over.
A mural decorating one wall of DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun.
DeGrazia was a struggling artist from the time he baked his first clay sculpture in his mother's kitchen oven to the day he died. It was almost entirely a struggled for recognition. Even with a master's degree, attained in 1945, his art seemed too simple and child-like to gain serious respect by other artists. In 1949, he built his own little galley on ten acres outside Tuscon, then in 1965, built another, larger one nearby, his "Gallery in the Sun" (top). Eventually DeGrazia gained a degree of success, only to encounter a struggled with the IRS, which threatened him with over a million dollars in inheritance taxes his heirs could not pay. The government deemed him a millionaire, on paper at least, so the irascible artist burned more than a hundred of his works to lesson the tax burden before being advised to start a non-profit foundation. Even after his death in 1985, despite his "incredible" struggles--his persona--his work continues to be under-appreciated by critics and collectors who deem it touristy, cutesy, and overly sentimental. Though his painting, Los Ninos, was featured on a widely published UNICEF stamp in 1960, and numerous figures from the entertainment industry have collected his work over the years, the art market in the Southwest is as competitive as that of anywhere in the world. That struggle to compete is as much a part of Ted DeGrazia's persona as any whitewashed mural.

Los Ninos, 1960, Ted DeGrazia

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