Ted DeGrazia: His life, his art, his way

by Jane St. Clair

I have a snobby friend who says Ted DeGrazia was not much of an artist. It’s true that his most famous work is a UNICEF Christmas card. It sold in the millions, but it’s not like it’s the Mona Lisa or something.


To me, DeGrazia’s art is not just about his paintings. His art is about how he lived his life here in Tucson. That is why I like to go up to where Swan Road almost ends under Fingertip Rock. There I can see how an artist truly did it his way.

DeGrazia built everything himself – his little house, his chapel, his studio and his art gallery. Because everything’s hand-built adobe, the buildings are small and primitive.

There are nutsy-putsy decorations everywhere – crucifixes mixed with beer cans, candles on cactus, and old Singer sewing machines used for planters. Nothing’s wasted, like the way poor people do things. There’s art in every corner. Everything’s art.

The chapel, dedicated to Padre Kino, could hold maybe ten people on its little benches.

Drawings are all over the chapel walls, and some you wouldn’t expect – like a clown brightening up a dark corner in the back.

DeGrazia liked to go up Superstition Mountain on horseback and visit the Yaquis. Sometimes they would come to his house and hitch their horses in this handmade corral.

DeGrazia did paintings, but he also worked in metals. I picture him working on this stove outside,

fashioning the copper door to the art gallery.

or making a beautiful crown.

He put a lot of humor that shows in many of his works.

But DeGrazia believed the artist’s role was to feel deeply and express emotions for people. Here is the resurrected Christ in glowing white, yet His face says so much more about what He is feeling.

DeGrazia famously took 100 paintings up a mountain and burned them to protest unfair tax laws. That’s a Western thing — to not much like the government.

When he came toward the end of his life, DeGrazia designed his own grave. Like I said, he did things his way.

I like to go up to where Swan Road almost ends not just for his paintings, but inspiration. DeGrazia’s place is sacred because it shows you what it’s like to lead an authentic life. His house, his chapel, his studio, his grave, his way. Adios, amigo.