Born in Arizona in 1909 just before it became an American state, Ettore (Ted) DeGrazia can be said to have grown up with the state. All was new and alluring, Native Americans and Mexicans, a desert landscape of varying moods, the tall tales of an adventurous people – all the subjects of his later paintings.
But not at first. His father, an immigrant from Italy, worked in an underground copper mine, and young DeGrazia joined him at toil there. From sunrise to sunset he saw no light. That he must have, he decided, considering the art that was to come.
Above ground he attended the University of Arizona, where his first works caught the eye of famed Mexican muralist and devout communist Diego Rivera. Under his influence, DeGrazia created his own political mural, “Power of the Press,” which suggested he was still somewhat underground. In somber dark colors skeletons trampled over happiness, the four horsemen of the apocalypse galloped over snakes slithering through books. It was promptly whitewashed by an indignant university and lost to posterity.
But DeGrazia was just getting started. He discovered every day life and how! You name the humdrum subject, he painted it. One day a belligerent man accosted him at a restaurant: “Who do you think you are, saying you can paint on anything?” In response, DeGrazia took a tortilla out of a basket and painted on it. Missing a rare opportunity, the irate accuser stormed off, leaving behind the tortilla, which now rests at the Gallery in the Sun in Tucson, no doubt the most valued tortilla in existence.
Early on, a desperate DeGrazia put his paintings on sale at a busy intersection in Tucson, even leaving some overnight. The next morning they were still there. “The don’t even steal my paintings,” he complained. That was to change dramatically when he switched his subject matter from Diego and skeletons to winsome, playful, devout little children who seemed to bask in innocence. They were perfect for Christmas cards as UNICEF discovered when it sent out many millions of greetings featuring DeGrazia’s “los Ninos,” a circle of children dancing hand in hand. DeGrazia found his metier along with fame and fortune. But not to critical acclaim. He apparently had committed the offense of being too popular. Who does he think he is? scoffed a lofty art establishment. Bring back Diego who was at least serious. But DeGrazia stuck to his ways and his locale, a cheerful adobe home outside Tucson. He even turned down a show in Cannes, France, as too far removed from his life and work. “I was born in the Southwest and I live it with a passion,” he explained. He was an artist of a particular time and place, and there he stayed and there he will be remembered.