Ettore (Ted) DeGrazia was born in 1909 to Italian immigrants in the small mining camp of Morenci in then Territorial Arizona. He spent his early years playing in and roaming about the barren hills surrounding his home. His playmates were Native American children from the nearby Apache Indian reservation. During these early pre-teen years, Ettore’s interest in art began to develop despite the harshness of the land and the rough and tumble existence in a primitive mining camp. His creativity absorbed the colors of his environment and his artistic abilities were kindled. His earliest works were simple carvings from clay that were hardened in his mother’s kitchen stove.
In 1920, when he was eleven years old, Phelps Dodge closed the mine in Morenci. Ted’s parents were then forced to uproot their family of seven children and return to Italy. There they remained for five years until word came of the re-opening of the mine. During these formative years, Ted was exposed to music and religious art – two creative aspects that were seriously lacking in the dusty mining camp of his early years.
Soon after returning to Morenci, Ted DeGrazia entered first grade at the age of sixteen. He had forgotten English and had to learn it all over again. It was at this time that he became known as “Ted.” One of his teachers anglicized his name “Ettore” into “Theodore” which naturally became shortened to “Ted.” During this time, his music abilities developed and he became quite proficient at playing a trumpet. At the age of twenty-three he graduated from High School.
After working in the mines for a spell, he decided to move on to Tucson, where, in 1932 he enrolled in the music program at the University of Arizona. He had little money in those days and had to support himself and pay for his education by taking odd jobs and playing at night with a big band. It was at one of these performances that he met his first wife, Alexandra. After dropping out of school, they married in 1936 and moved to Bisbee, Arizona. Three children were born from this union, but it didn’t last and the couple divorced in 1946.
While living in Bisbee, DeGrazia started creating his early paintings, and the popular Arizona Highways magazine took note and began featuring the artist and his work in their pages. This was a relationship that lasted the rest of his career. This early work was a result of his impressions received from extensive travels throughout the area of southern Arizona and into northern Mexico. There, he got to know the people and the lands intimately and his work became a reflection of what he saw and experienced.
In 1942 Ted went to Mexico City to further his art studies. While there, he met both Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, two of Mexico’s greatest artists. He worked as an intern for both and actually helped them in their mural work at the Palacio Municipal and the Hospital of Jesus Nazarene in Mexico City. These two prominent artists also set up a solo exhibition of DeGrazia’s paintings at the Palacio de Bellas Artes where they were warmly received. Orozco claimed that DeGrazia would be “one of the best American painters.”
DeGrazia returned to Arizona in 1943 and approached the University of Arizona to display the paintings shown in Mexico City. They refused. Hurt by their rebuff, he still went on to finish up his education. Besides, a Bachelor of Arts in Music, he proceeded to attain a Bachelor of Art in Art, and a Masters of Art degree. His formal education was completed by 1945. During this time, he had trouble getting his paintings shown. No gallery was interested in displaying his work. So, he decided to build his own. With a little borrowed money and few Mexican and Indian friends, together they built an adobe building with enough bare walls inside to fill with his own paintings.
The next few years were filled with extensive traveling throughout Arizona and Mexico, where he studied the ways of the local Indian tribes, always committing their lore to paint and canvas. During this period of time, he did pause long enough to meet Marion Sheret and they became husband and wife at a wedding ceremony in the jungles of Mexico in 1947. In 1951, they bought a ten acre site in the foothills east of Tucson after urban sprawl forced them out of the adobe gallery built six years earlier. Here, Ted DeGrazia built his Gallery in the Sun. It still stands today as a testament to the man and his work.
A year earlier, 1950, proved to be a turning point in DeGrazia’s financial world. A gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona arranged to set up a one-man show. It was a rousing success and now he was on his way. The world now took notice and before long was beating a path to his door. As the years past, DeGrazia busied himself with painting and filling the walls of his Gallery. For a break, he would travel to his favorite place of all, the Superstition Mountains, east of what is now the Phoenix Metro area. Home of the Lost Dutchman Mine, there he would sketch, prospect for gold, and camp out under the stars.
In 1960, UNICEF chose the painting, Los Niños (the children), for their Christmas Card. They sold over five million boxes of this card throughout the world, bringing worldwide attention to the artist. This painting continues to this day to be his most famous work of art. While Ted painted scenery and cultural and religious events, he will always be noted for his paintings of children.
In 1976 DeGrazia made national if not worldwide news when he packed up over 100 of his paintings on a packhorse and hauled them up to the Superstition Mountains. There with ten friends and witnesses, he piled them up into a pyre and with tears streaming down his face, he lit them ablaze. This was in protest to the unfair inheritance tax policies of the time. He vowed to never paint again, but an artist can only be true to himself. After three years, he once again began painting his oils.
Ted DeGrazia passed from this life in the year 1982.