A shorter version of this article was published in Downtown Phoenix Journal.
Iconic Arizona artist Ted DeGrazia is most widely remembered for his commercially popular paintings of large-eyed children, faceless angels, and Southwestern-themed imagery. But two murals he left behind in downtown Phoenix — hidden under protective sheetrock for years — reveal a glimpse of DeGrazia’s other subjects and his unique mark on the community.
“A lot of times DeGrazia would go into a place and someone would say to him, ‘Oh, here’s a sandwich and a pitcher of beer,’ you know, ‘Would you paint me a picture?’ and he’d do it for lunch,” says DeGrazia Foundation Executive Director Lance Laber. “Now, this is a pretty extensive mural, so I know he didn’t do it for lunch,” he continues with a laugh. “This mural is 12 feet tall and it’s 40 feet long.”
Laber is describing a mural covering a large expanse of interior wall at 222 E. Roosevelt in the former greenHAUS Gallery. “The establishment was a bar,” he says, and explains that the murals were most likely painted around 60 years ago. “Although they’re different, they go along with the way DeGrazia’s style was in the ‘50s.” Laber continues, “We knew that there were murals there — probably for the past 20 years we’ve known.”
The best-known and most widely marketed work of Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia generally features stereotypically Southwestern topics, like horses and Native American scenes. “Or little doe-eyed or no-eyed children,” says Laber. “But in the earlier days he was much more willing to paint the kind of stuff he liked to paint; he painted the kids and the angels because that’s what paid the bills.” He adds, “What he really liked to paint…came out in some of these murals.”
On the walls of the Roosevelt building a smaller mural shows a dancer twirling in a glass, while the huge 40-foot work depicts scenes of alcohol production, from loincloth-clad figures gathered around a cauldron to a hillbilly moonshine still. “Everybody’s making some kind of booze,” says Laber. “That seems to be the theme of the mural.” Both pieces feature opaque greenish-turquoise backgrounds, and while the dancer is painted on drywall attached to wood studs, the alcohol scenes were applied directly to a very thin layer of plaster adhering to a double-brick wall.
“I had never seen anything by DeGrazia that looked like that — truly amazing,” says Laber. “The murals are kind of old…they’re a little faded from time, but they’re very interesting.” The artwork was covered and protected by sheetrock, and Laber was updated about the murals when building owner Baron Properties contacted the DeGrazia Foundation back in September 2014.
“We learned of the two pieces as we were conducting our due diligence to buy the property,” says Baron partner Scott Fisher. “We called Lance [Laber] to understand what the murals were and what they stood for and their importance.” He continues, “We wanted to do the right thing and…donate the paintings, so that’s why we called the DeGrazia Foundation.”
Baron has owned property in the Valley since 2004 and intends to build a new building on the Roosevelt site, but the company has worked out a rare opportunity with Artlink in which the DeGrazia murals will be on free display to the public during March First Friday and Art Detour 27 from March 6-8. “We don’t just share a desire to preserve the DeGrazia artwork,” says Fisher. “We want to do what we can to actually enhance and expand a great arts neighborhood with additional efforts too.”
Roosevelt Row and Downtown Phoenix activists have established a Change.org petition in the hopes of somehow repurposing or moving DeGrazia’s art. Meanwhile, Laber has been working with Baron and an art conservator to determine how the murals can be preserved, and odds are good that the smaller mural can be saved. “That’s on a piece of sheetrock that we believe can be removed from the wall,” he says. The larger mural is a different story — no one has yet devised a method to protect such an expansive piece against the torque exerted on a thin layer of aging stucco. “If you start trying to peel it off or get behind it and get it off you’re probably just going to break it into a thousand pieces,” says Laber.
“In either case we plan on having a professional photographer take very high-definition photographs and donate those to the Foundation and whoever else is interested,” says Fisher. “We understand that the Roosevelt Arts District is very important, and so our new projects on Roosevelt…we plan on displaying and highlighting local art from local artists. Our plan is to have more artwork, not less.”
DeGrazia was born to Italian immigrants in the Morenci mining camp in 1909 and worked briefly in the Phelps Dodge mine before enrolling at the University of Arizona while earning a living as a trumpeter. He managed a theater and began painting in Bisbee, later studying with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco before the two artists sponsored a solo exhibition of DeGrazia’s paintings at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1944 DeGrazia established a studio in Tucson, earned several degrees, and began building his Gallery in the Sun on a ten-acre foothills site near the Santa Catalina Mountains. He was featured in Arizona Highways and National Geographic magazines, and his 1957 oil painting “Los Niños” gained international fame as a UNICEF holiday card.
Dramatic and larger than life, DeGrazia said, “I want to be notorious rather than famous. Fame has too much responsibility. People forget you are human.” He won further notoriety with his infamous and well-publicized 1976 protest against the Internal Revenue Service’s inheritance tax. “Anything he hadn’t sold was considered like inventory,” says Laber, “so even without being sold it’s got a value, especially from someone like DeGrazia. He had maybe 10,000 paintings, maybe more, and he couldn’t really leave them to his heirs because of the tax that would have to be paid, so he took about 100 paintings — it was a million five [dollars’ worth] — to Angel Springs in the Superstition Mountains and he burned them…made a movie of it and made sure that anybody he could scream to heard him.”
Today, the Gallery in the Sun offers rotating exhibitions and free public tours exploring some of the 15,000 DeGrazia originals in its permanent collection, ranging from oils, watercolors and sketches to sculptures, ceramics and jewelry.
Pragmatically, Laber explains that despite the combined efforts of the DeGrazia Foundation, community activists and Baron Properties, the larger piece in the Roosevelt building may be impossible to save due to the challenges of preservation, cost, storage and display. “This has happened to countless DeGrazia murals,” he says with resignation. “Once you take it out of its context, what does it mean? And once you get it, what do you do with it? He painted a lot on people’s walls and not much of it remains today.”
Update: Recently released, DeGrazia: The Man and the Myths is a new biography of DeGrazia by James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson from The University of Arizona Press. Both authors join DeGrazia Foundation Executive Director Lance Laber at the Tucson Festival of Books on Sunday, March 15 in the Student Union’s Kachina room on the U of A campus for a panel discussion from 1 p.m.-2 p.m., followed by a book-signing.