DeGrazia Gallery and The Disco Kid

I lived in Tucson for 26 years before moving to San Francisco. There are a lot of things I like about Tucson but it for me it was too small in someways (some small town mentality) and too big in others (SPRAWL!) Despite the fact that I left, I have lots of good things to say about it as a place to visit. What’s funny (or perhaps this is actually common?) is that I’ve actually done many more tourist-y things in Tucson on my visits back there since I moved than I ever did when I was there.

For example, on this trip I went to the DeGrazia art gallery, a popular – and free! – attraction in Tucson that I really ought to have at least seen when I was there but had never checked out. In fact, although I briefly could recall studying some of DeGrazia’s work in an art class in elementary school I really didn’t know anything at all about him until this visit.

Who is DeGrazia?

Ted DeGrazia is a Tucson artist whose name most Tucsonans would at least recognize. He was actually born in AZ to Italian immgirants but then the family had to relocate back to Italy for a time and then eventually he did make his way back to AZ, a place he seemed to really love. DeGrazia originally found that no one was interested in displaying his paintings so he created his own adobe studio in the center of Tucson to share his work. He eventually moved to a bigger space on 10 desert acres, which is where the gallery exists now.

He is best known for his work depicting Native Americans. They are really simple figures, often without facial fetaures, and yet there’s a lot of movement and emotion to the figures.

In the 1970s the artist got a lot of attention for a controversial action of burning many of his pieces of art to protest a tax situation. Basically his heirs were going to be required to be large taxes on the value of his now-popular artwork. He felt this was unfair because when he created the work it wasn’t popular so the only tax break he could get was the minimal amount for supplies. He burned over 100 works of art and got lots of media attention as a result. I can’t help but wonder if the ones he burned were pieces he liked or just extras from his very large collection of works!

The Portrait Show

My dad and I were trying to come up with something fun that the two of us could do together during my trip. I mentioned possibly some art gallery and he remembered that he had seen a mention in The Tucson Weekly about a show at DeGrazia gallery. It was a unique exhibit featuring portraits of DeGrazia done by other artists as well as self-portraits that he had done. It was amazing.

There were portraits of the artists from various people starting in the 1940s and continuing nearly through to his death in the early 1980s. These portraits were hung side by side by side in a single room of the gallery so it really provoked this strong visual display of how the artist was perceived by others and interpreted in different mediums. There are drawings, paintings, photos and even a few sculptures. (Fun fact: DeGrazia got a lot of support in his career from famous artist Diego Rivera and there is at least one portrait that also features Rivera.)

What really struck me as interesting was the man’s self-portraits, especially the ones from his younger years. They are boldly colored but still seem dark somehow – several reminded me of The Scream by Munch. He seems really unhappy and depressing and tortured in his self-portraits. I can’t say that he was but that was the definite impression that I got from the feeling of the paintings. It was also interesting to see how he saw himself over time.

I really love this idea of showing a series of portraits, especially combined with self-portraits, all in one space. What an amazing exhibit of the way a single person can be seen in so many varied and different ways. We are each so many facets of ourselves and also seen in so many ways by others and a show like this really exhibits that. Loved this.

DeGrazia’s Earlier Art

There was another special exhibit in the gallery at this time of DeGrazia’s earliest work done while he was living in Bisbee, Arizona at the end of the 1930s (and simultaneously working in an old theater). The little I did know of DeGrazia was about his very famous artwork of Native Americans but this new artwork is very different from that and actually really more appealing to me. His father was a miner and there are several scenes related to miners. There were also drawings of Bisbee scenery and buildings.

This Gallery/ Property Is HUGE!

DeGrazia’s gallery goes on and on forever, room upon room upon room. This is amazing in part because it holds tons of his artwork. They have about 15,000 pieces of work from him in their collection – regardless of whether or not I like an artist’s work I never fail to be amazed by this type of prolificness!

But it’s also amazing because the building itself is a work of DeGrazia’s art. It was his home and his studio. He moved to this part of Tucson back when it was an empty desert (now it’s practically the center of this sprawled out city) and built an adobe home and studio here with the help of his Native American friends. There wasn’t even water there at the time so they had to bring their water in … and an adobe home needs a lot of water to be built!

The rooms have all of these cool details. For example there is this great floor in part of it that my dad and I thought was the tops of wooden logs but we learned that it was actually portions of cholla cactus (jumping cactus!) that had been cut off by the workers and then laid out into a floor that was filled in with something like cement. It’s really beautiful and unique. Sadly I failed to take a picture of this, which is such a shame! However, the blog In or Out of Bounds has a few pictures; I’ll share one here and then encourage you to go check out all of the DeGrazia images from that blog.

In addition to the main gallery there are multiple other buildings on the property. There is a small mission that you can still go into. There are several guest houses. It’s truly just a beautiful place to check out because there’s so much to it. It’s simple and yet detailed and it celebrates the desert.

The DeGrazia Family and The Disco Kid

There was some interesting side information revealed to me as a result of this trip. When my mom and dad first started dating in the late 1970s they used to go to amateur boxing matches. These were held in Tucson bars and pretty much anyone could sign up to fight. There was a boxer at a few of these who they called The Disco Kid or something like that. He’d get in the ring and dance around all disco-like until he basically got knocked out. That boxer, who my parents met a few times, was Nick DeGrazia, the son of the artist DeGrazia.

At the gallery we got to talking to someone who worked there and my dad asked about the DeGrazia family. Sadly Nick has passed away. But he has some interesting siblings. There are two older sisters from DeGrazia’s first marriage. One of them is eighty years old and still working the night shift as a hispital dispatcher – not because she has to but because she wants to. That’s awesome. There was a second marriage and a step-son from that marriage I believe. And then, when DeGrazia died there was a reading of his will and most of his estate was left to a surprise third family he had later in life … he had a young child at that time that’s about fifty years younger than the oldest DeGrazia daughter! This other boy is apparently the only one who inherited lots of dad’s art talent as well.

The story goes that Nick did try to make it in the art world but that didn’t really take off. He was an okay artist but mediocre and nothing compared to his father. For awhile he was signing works DeGrazia as well and then that came to the attention of Dad who basically said, “no way Jose”.

An interesting article from Tucson Weekly, elaborates:

“DeGrazia and his son Nick were often at odds, but nothing caused a wider gap in their relationship than when Nick, who worked as a boxer and a wrangler, decided to take up painting. He copied his father’s work in the simplest of styles, mimicked the colors and of course the very familiar and famous “DeGrazia” signature which, one assumes, he was fully entitled to use. Nick died some years ago, but his work–donkeys and Indian maidens–still pops up in eBay’s DeGrazia section, often without mentioning his first name.”

Must be tough to live in the shadow of a really respected artist in a town like Tucson that’s so small in many ways!

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There is a new biography of De Grazia published in 2014 by the University of Arizona Press titled "De Grazia; the man and the myths". The writing is honestly nothing to get excited about, but the picture it paints of the guy who was De Grazia is really clear and compelling:


  1. […] about how my dad and I had gone to see a portrait exhibit at Degrazia Gallery of the Sun in Tucson. Check that post out for tons of info about the gallery and artist as well as the first set of photos that I shared. I […]