The DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun – Tucson, Arizona

Adobe Chapel on the DeGrazia Property
        Yesterday, we visited the Ted DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun. The adobe museum and adjoining chapel, both listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, have become a pilgrimage site for those wishing to understand and reflect on the unique cultural flavor that is the American Southwest. The work Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia not only preserves a significant historical and cultural merging in American History, but also essentially defines a heritage. His subject matter - even his artistic styling and techniques - reflect the great cultural hybridization of the Southwest, namely the meeting the Spanish, American, and Native American cultures.

        DeGrazia’s parents were Italian immigrants to an Arizonan mining camp, thus from the beginning, DeGrazia was immersed into an environment of cultural melding. As a child, DeGrazia grew up playing with the local Apache children, resulting in an insider’s perspective of the Native American culture, lore, and plights. This empathy and understanding of the indigenous cultures he encountered in the Sonoran Desert are translated into his paintings. These people taught DeGrazia how to extract color from the resources readily available in nature and became to central to his paintings. This cultural acceptance yielded a certain authenticity in his artwork, thereby allowing him to accurately capture the culture of the highly-misunderstood Native American. His early works were received with critical extremes, even once referred to as “cute depictions of Indian children.” Initially unsuccessful, he steadily gained mounting recognition and fame. It was not until 1960, however, that his burgeoning fame blossomed when UNICEF printed DeGrazia’s “Los Ninos” on its holiday greeting card that went on to sell millions worldwide. In 1976, DeGrazia attracted further recognition and media scrutiny. To protest inheritance taxes placed on artwork, DeGrazia traveled to the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix and set fire to over 100 of his paintings, in his estimate, valued at over 1.5 million dollars.

"Los Ninos"
        Cultural hybridism is the overwhelming theme in DeGrazia’s artwork. He spent the entirety of his artistic career translating the culture and oral traditions of the Southwest. A product of cultural hybridism himself, DeGrazia also struggled with reconciling his Italian roots with those of American and Spanish and grew up speaking multiple languages. Thus, DeGrazia’s artistic philosophy is multicultural, as he said “I’m a part of everybody, part Italian, part Indian, part Mexican, part Jew, part everything…you are just a part of all that you’ve been through, all that has been around you.”

        Immediately upon arrival at the DeGrazia Gallery of the Sun, I was struck by the humbleness and simplicity of everything surrounding me. Possessing an unassuming countenance, the gallery showed no signs of some pretentious artist taking up residence there. In fact, DeGrazia never was accepted by –nor wished to ascribe to –the Academy. Rather, he was more interested in sharing his art with the average person, for it was their stories that he was depicting. Understanding this idea enables one to understand the aesthetic of the DeGrazia property. Everything on it was constructed from the resources readily available (and affordable). Our guide, a personal friend and apprentice of DeGrazia, shared with us several stories demonstrating DeGrazia’s great creativity and resourcefulness. For example, one summer passed without any of his flowers blooming, so DeGrazia decided to make his own out of scraps of various aluminum cans. In another instance, DeGrazia was Christmas Tree-less one holiday season, so he simply spray-painted a tumbleweed white. The gallery, itself, is filled with DeGrazia’s personal touches and is imbued with his resourceful nature. At one point, DeGrazia ran out of money while constructing the floors of the gallery and decided to revert to an inexpensive material which was available in abundance: cactus ribs. Only recognizable to the trained eye, the thick slices of cactus ribs paving the hallways look (and feel) like stone. It was simply unbelievable.

flowers composed of various aluminum cans
         The displays in the gallery read like stories, each painting sequential to the other. I found his paintings, whose subjects were mainly Apache children, extremely touching. That this seemingly outsider Italian man could record the history and culture of these people and relate it with such stirring emotion was extraordinary. DeGrazia wanted his gallery’s visitors to actively participate in his art, not just passively glance at it. For this reason, many of his subjects are depicted without facial features with the idea that these faceless specimens could be anyone/everyone, and that these stories belong to all of us.

        DeGrazia believed in a great creator from whom all things stemmed. Because the creator made everything in the physical world, everything in it is therefore perfect. This idea is also reflected in the subject matter DeGrazia chose to depict. Unlike artists of the elite art world, DeGrazia did not shy away from painting the mundane existence, but rather brought out the beauty in it. The simplistic existence he paints, juxtaposed with American mainstream culture, serves as a stark contrast to the complexities, hardships, and corruption of American society. Rather than ascribing to the “elite” standard of art, DeGrazia chose to give the Native Americans surrounding him a sense of community and a cultural identity. Since his death, DeGrazia’s spirit continues to inspire those who visit his Gallery in the Sun, and if approached with the correct mindset, one will leave with a new perspective lens through which to view the surrounding world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

- Kristen Hunter (forgot to leave my name :)