He’s best known for his cherubic children with colorful clothing and no eyes.
But artist Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia painted on weightier themes before the world started demanding his depictions of innocence.
“In the early days, he painted the Mexican revolution and a lot of Mexican peasants,” said Lance P. Laber, the executive director at the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun. “There was a lot of sadness in the paintings, and poverty. He would paint soldiers lining people up on a firing squad wall.”
More than a half-century after DeGrazia’s death, the gallery still tries to educate people about the man’s versatility as an artist.
The exhibit “DeGrazia: 100 Years, 100 Works,” which runs through December, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth. The chronological show features the artist’s work in a variety of media, including oil paint, ceramics, stained glass, lithography and even an old-fashioned copper toilet float.
“They say necessity is the mother of invention,” Laber said, referencing the toilet-float-turned-Christmas-ornament. “You use what you have.”
DeGrazia was born in 1909 in the eastern Arizona mining camp of Morenci. It’s said he loved the turquoise and earthen hues he saw at the mine.
“Everything was there,” Laber said. “There were spectacular colors in the ground.”
While in his early 30s, DeGrazia took a trip to Mexico City, where he met and then studied under the famed mural artist Diego Rivera.
His paintings during this period of his life delved into serious subjects but – despite some nice press in Arizona Highways – did not propel him to international fame.
“Not everyone wants to put up a painting of a firing squad on their wall,” Laber said. “It’s kind of dark.”
The artist’s large-scale commercial success came in the 1960s and 1970s, after UNICEF printed his painting “Los Ninos” on greeting cards and sold millions of copies for charity.
The painting showed a group of children dancing in a circle.
“He touched just about everybody – thousands of tourists came from the Midwest,” Laber said. “They loved him.”
As fans clamored for cherubic children, DeGrazia began to move his artistic focus toward that direction, Laber said. The artist, who had endured such poverty in his early years that he turned away from expensive paintbrushes and painted with a palette knife, had to support his family.
Masses approved of the direction, but others turned up their noses.
“The rest of the world kind of looked at him as a commercial artist who painted crummy little children without eyes,” Laber said. “He was not accepted by the art community.”
In 1952, DeGrazia started building his own gallery to display his work because other galleries wouldn’t take it.
Over the years, the gallery’s collection grew to about 15,000 pieces. More art pieces, still, were in private hands.
In 1982, DeGrazia died at age 73.
In 2006, his gallery earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
His retrospective exhibit includes paintings he created at age 16 and work produced toward the end of his life. It contains watercolors bled on damp paper and blobs of oil paint on canvas maneuvered by a palette knife.
“His use of all the mediums was just amazing,” Laber said.
WHAT: “DeGrazia: 100 Years, 100 Works”
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except on New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas
WHERE: DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, 6300 N. Swan Road
WHAT: DeGrazia Centennial Concert, sponsored by the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21
WHERE: Fox Theater, 17 W. Congress St.
DETAILS: Ted DeGrazia’s son, Domingo DeGrazia, performs Spanish guitar music with his band. All proceeds to benefit the American Cancer Society
COST: $25, $35, $50