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The colors between earth and sky.


BRIGHT LIGHTS FROM THE T.V. cameras arced across the room as waiters in dinner jackets carrying trays of wine and hors d'oeuvres moved through the sophisticated, well-dressed crowd--another art opening, as glittering an affair as only art receptions can be in Mexico City. The first art opening ever in the New World took place there in 1781. Invitations went out, wine was ordered and a crush of dignitaries, scribes and socialites descended on the San Carlos Academy of New Spain of the Three Nobel Arts. A city that lives, breathes and personifies art, Mexico City has been honing and refining art show opening night receptions ever since, bringing them into and through the twentieth century with lustrous, shimmering perfection.

The opening in August, 1992, at Museo Estudio Diego Rivera in the city's fashionable San Angel district was something different. It was not only an art show but a homecoming. On the walls were the early works of Tucson, Arizona, artist Ted De Grazia, known throughout the world for his sensitive, colorful paintings of American Southwest Indians and of life and people in northern Mexico. De Grazia died eleven years ago, but his star continues to rise as this glittering tribute would clearly testify.

Nearly 50 years ago, the young Ettore (Ted) De Grazia left his wife, two children and his job as the manager of a Tucson movie theater, packed 20 paintings in the back of his little Ford coup and headed for Mexico City--a page torn from the life of Paul Gauguin perhaps. His goal was to meet Diego Rivera. Living on less than a dollar a day, De Grazia learned where Rivera was working and turned up daily to watch the master muralist. Finally he got up courage enough to introduce himself.

Rivera took an immediate liking to the young Spanish-speaking Italian-American and put him to work as an apprentice. The friendship deepened. Through Rivera, De Grazia met Jose Clemente Orozco and other leading artists of the day. The U.S. was in the throws of World War II at the time and it was a letter from Rivera that won De Grazia a deferment from the draft. "De Grazia's paintings greatly interested me because of his brilliant artistic gift and his personal sentiment...anything that may be done to extend him assistance, will be for the benefit of the culture of the United States."

So impressed were Rivera and Orozco with the work of the artist from the Arizona desert that in November of 1942 they arranged for an exhibition of his work to be shown in the foyer of the Bellas Artes. In preparation of the show, Rivera pressed for more paintings and offered De Grazia the use of his studio to complete them. In promoting the exhibit, Orozco wrote "De Grazia's painting has all the freshness, simplicity and power of youth. He is able to go from the simple and graceful movement of the 'Cocks Fighting,' to the understanding of human misery as in the 'Boy Playing the Violin.' He will be one of the best American painters someday." Orozco's words couldn't have been more prophetic.

The paintings exhibited last year at the Museo Estudio Diego Rivera included several that had been painted originally in the very same studio and shown at the Bellas Artes nearly a half century earlier. After Rivera's death, the upper two floors of his San Angel studio were converted to a museum, with a large gallery on the ground floor. Adjacent to the famed San Angel restaurant, the studio is preserved much the way Rivera left it. The floors creek, the walls are covered with carved wooden masks, many with the price tags still dangling off them, indicative of a man too busy to remove them. Easels and paint brushes are everywhere and there's a stack of old frames in the bathroom. Off in a corner is a large denim jacket hanging on a coat rack, above a pair of paint-splattered shoes. His presence fills the room, shared that night, of course, with De Grazia's spirit as well.

To best appreciate the essence of De Grazia's work and his lifestyle, one must visit his Gallery in the Sun in Tucson, Arizona--the artist's museum, gallery, workshop, former home and gravesite. His philosophy was direct and simple: "Years ago galleries wouldn't show my work, so I built my own gallery. Later, when the work was beginning to get established, museums wanted nothing to do with it, so I built my own museum. All artists have to believe in what they do."

From the metal mine-shaft doors at the museum's entranceway to the polished cholla tiles in the floor (dried cacti stamped into the earth), the museum is as appealing as the paintings on the walls. Built by the artist himself with the help of Indian friends, the sprawling, spacious single-story museum utilizes only natural materials from the surrounding desert. "I wanted to get the feeling of the Southwest," said the artist in an interview. "I wanted to build the museum so that my paintings would feel good inside it. When I say I am intimately acquainted with every adobe in my studio, I mean it. I put them up. As I felt the need for more room, I added on another studio--one for display, one for painting, one for ceramic, one for living quarters. I love adobe. It has a living quality and changes with the seasons. It is moist in the rain, cold in winter and ages gracefully with time."

De Grazia is best known for his paintings of Southwest Indians whom he depicted with stylistic brilliance and in a dazzling palette of colors, often with faces left blank; you fill in the emotions yourself--joy, sorrow, fear, anger. Among the hundreds of paintings on permanent display at the Gallery in the Sun is the Desert Medicine Man, a colorful interpretation of a Papago healer under a mesquite ramada with his feathers and fetishes healing a sick Indian as others look on. The painting was used as the model for the large mosaic on the face of the Sherwood Medical Center in Tucson. Another painting on display is Los Ninos, a swirling band of Mexican children hand-in-hand. Used as a Christmas card by UNICEF, it raised millions of dollars and is believed to be the biggest selling card in UNICEF history.

De Grazia made international headlines in 1976 when he rode into the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix, accompanied by a few close friends and numerous press and television photographers. There he burned dozens of his paintings to protest what he felt was an unfair tax against artists--the practice of assessing unsold paintings at full commercial value when an artist dies. Thus rarely can surviving relatives afford to inherit a successful artist's estate. "This burning won't change anything," said De Grazia at the time. "The only satisfaction is in doing it. I may burn other paintings. Maybe somebody who cares about my work will do something. Who knows?"

Adjacent to the museum is the Mission in the Sun, a hand-built adobe chapel completed in 1952 and dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of the Yaqui Indians and of Mexico, and to the memory of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, the Jesuit missionary who built churches throughout the Southwest in the seventeenth century. De Grazia retraced the Father's footsteps in the twentieth century, completing one of his best-known series of paintings, the Kino Collection.

The mission's interior is covered with murals painted by De Grazia and for all its simplicity the building itself is filled with symbolism. A bell, rung by the force of the wind, marks the gateway to eternity. A simple wooden ladder, its rungs lashed in place with rope, connects earth and heaven, a centuries-old legend. Holding the sides of the ladder and looking past the rungs into the empty sky, one gets the feeling of distance and closeness flowing into one another. The roof is partially open, the spacious outside filling the space inside. An artist drinking tequila--and De Grazia drank his share--stares into the night and thinks the stars above Arizona are angels.

Ted De Grazia was born in Morenci, June 14, 1909. Christened Ettore, he was born to Demoniac De Grazia and Lucia Gagliardi, natives of Italy. A deep sense of religion was instilled upon him at an early age and nurtured his interest in art. "The little that could be called art in Morenci was found in the church," he once said. "At home we had a medieval Christ that my mother brought from Italy. It was a striking, elongated, El Greco-like Christ which impressed me so much because it was the spirit of sadness."

While religious subjects can be seen in much of his work--even Indian figures are frequently shown as angels and madonnas--he had little use for the traditional formalities of church. "One time I was pumping the organ in church," he would reminisce. "I was pumping it for High Mass. For some reason, right in the middle of Mass I stopped pumping. The music stopped and there were all these quivering, out-of-tune voices. Two monks came up to the choir lift, picked me up by the ears, led me down some spiral steps and out I went. I think that's what ended my religious intentions."

De Grazia was already a young man in his twenties when he decided he had to get away from working the mines in Morenci. He had seen his grandfather, who died of the miner's disease, come out of the mines day after day covered with red dust. It was 1932 when De Grazia arrived in Tucson riding in the back of a pick-up truck. He enrolled at the University of Arizona to study art and music, supporting himself by odd jobs, playing trumpet in a local band and painting murals for $25 a day. Almost all of the early murals are gone now--destroyed.

His early days on campus were a struggle. After a long series of getting expelled and re-admitted, he graduated in 1945 with three degrees. First he obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Music Education, but it wasn't what he wanted. So he later wrote a thesis on color and sound for his Bachelor of Fine Arts and then combined his music and art abilities to earn a Master of Arts. For all of his trouble in college (it took him forever to finish) years later, in 1967, when his art career was firmly established, he received the University's prestigious Alumni Achievement Award, an honor shared with such illustrious fellow alumni as Senator Barry Goldwater and Congressman Stewart Udall.

Perhaps no artist's style is more immediately recognizable. De Grazia painted with a pallet knife, a technique he began when he was still in school and could not afford brushes. De Grazia rarely worked where people could see him. He wasn't the kind of painter who wears a smock and baret and sets up an easel. Instead, he retained what he saw by watching it over and over. If he couldn't remember it, he felt it wasn't worth putting down. Few people ever saw his studio. Even his wife rarely entered it. He frequently painted to music. The music he liked most was the music he drank to, the music of the Mexican Revolution.

Although basically a painter, he also modeled in clay and worked with ceramics, pottery and bees' wax. Often he would wake up at night and draw what he called "midnight sketches" in pen and ink. He did thousands. He would sketch on postcards, on envelopes with stamps on them, on books, whatever he happened to have around. He felt that sketches were the very soul of an artist. They are fresh, more meaningful and often more beautiful than the final painting. When you turn a sketch into a painting, the intellect goes to work and something is lost between the sketch and the painting, the essence, if you will, or the soul. "I try to convey an instant freeze, a moment, capture a thought or mood in color." he once said. "But I always try to go beyond the intellect. I want the onlooker to participate--to be part of the painting. It should be an emotional experience."

On his work, his friend and fellow painter Thomas Hart Benton wrote, "A feeling of desert quality permeates all that De Grazia does. It is full of a delicate and very human poetry which everyone can feel and everyone can understand."

When De Grazia returned from his Mexico City apprenticeship with Rivera and Orozco, he had a head full of teaching. He wanted to get away from it all for a while, to think and clear his mind, so he spent a year in the desert panning for gold. Throughout his life, he spent much of his leisure time in the desert and in central Arizona's rugged Superstition Mountains looking for gold. The prospector--the old man with a white beard, alone with his trusted burro--became a recurring theme in many of his paintings. "I never expected to hit the jackpot. I never thought I'd make it big," De Grazia said. "Galleries were selling so much of my work that suddenly all I could see when I started to paint were dollar signs. So I stopped painting. It took a couple of years. Then when I felt like me again, I got back to it."

Success did not come quickly, though. When he opened his first gallery at the corner of Prince and Campbell Avenues in Tucson, De Grazia used to prop his paintings on a wide flat board that went from the doorway to the curb. Sometimes he would get drunk and forget to bring them in at night. The next morning they would still be there. People would not even steal his work.

That was when he met his second wife. Marion Sheret, a young and somewhat disenchanted Buffalo University graduate who had left a fashion job and "escaped" to Tucson. Driving in the desert one day, she passed a small, flat-roofed pink adobe building. The sand around it, raked clean, was shimmering white in the bright sun, intensifying the deep green of the sparse vegetation. The bleached skull of a steer stared vacantly through empty eyes. Mesquite shrubs and a small paloverde tree were decorated with clay bells and faceless clay angels. Yellow and pink candles were propped in a dry, dead saguaro. "I could marry a man who lived in a house like that," Marion said to herself, no doubt less seriously than she had intended. Later she drove back and knocked on the door. "When she married me I thought I was a pretty hot artist," De Grazia said. "My paintings sold for $3 to $5 and I wasn't making $50 a year. But we lived and breathed art."

Today, at 87, Marion De Grazia heads the De Grazia Arts and Cultural Foundation, with assets conservatively estimated at $20 million. The foundation's goals are to perpetuate the work and cultural heritage of De Grazia and other kindred artists. In August, 1990, special commemorative ceremonies were held in Mexico City to mark the completion of restoration work on the Rufino Tamayo mural "El Canto y la Musica" at the National Conservatory of Music which was severely damaged in the September 1985 earthquake. The project was entirely funded by the De Grazia Foundation of Tucson in appreciation of Mexico City's early encouragement of the artist's work.

Early this year, for the first time in its more than thirty-year history, De Grazia's Gallery in the Sun relinquished major exhibit space to an artist other than the museum's founder. "Pasion Por Frida" (Passion For Frida), the extensive touring exhibit of works by different artists in various mediums all inspired in one way or another by artist Frida Kahlo, was displayed there from January through March. The show, which originated at the Diego Rivera Studio Museum in Mexico City, was also seen in New York City, Houston and San Francisco.

Like most artists, De Grazia was often moody and introspective. Nothing upset him more than the changing face of the Indian scene. "All over the Southwest our Indians are changing," he said shortly before his death on September 17, 1982. "Call it progress, if you will, to bring the Indians a better way of life. But it saddens me to see a jukebox in a Hopi trading post, and it saddens me to learn a mammoth supermarket is being built at Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation. The Apaches, the Papagos, the Pimas, the Pueblo Indians along the Rio Grande--they are all changing. If God gives me the strength and time, I hope to capture on canvas what vestiges still exist of their old and colorful ways."

Close to the chapel is the artist's grave, frontier-style, covered by a mound of rocks. The man who could afford a mausoleum worthy of J.P Morgan was buried, as he wished, in a plain pine coffin.

Ron Butler, a freelance writer residing in Arizona, journeyed into Superstition Mountain with a group of fellow adventurers led by Ted De Grazia. Gallery in the Sun is located at 6300 N. Swan Road, Tucson, Arizona, 85715; (602) 299-9191. The De Grazia Foundation's director is Jennifer Potter. Gallery admission is free. None of the original oil paintings, sculptures or water colors by the artist is for sale.
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Title Annotation:paintings by Arizona artist Ettore de Grazia
Author:Butler, Ron
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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