a collage of photos of a desert art gallery in tucson arizona. degrazia gallery in the sun.

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Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains on Tucson’s north side, there’s a 10-acre plot that’s different from everything else in the neighborhood.

Unlike the ritzy properties that now flank 6300 North Swan Road, these 10 acres were built within the desert, not on top of it. Once the home and gallery of a multi-talented artist, it’s now a museum.

In 1952, Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia built his Gallery in the Sun here. And as I walked through an entrance of railroad ties and stone carefully constructed to resemble a mine shaft, I knew it was going to be like nothing else I’d seen.

But before we dive into the wonderful things the artist left behind, we should know a bit about what brought him there.

Who was Ted DeGrazia?

Born to Italian parents in Morenci, Arizona Territory in 1909, Ted’s early life exposed him to many cultures and plenty of struggles. Due to his upbringing in a harsh mining town, DeGrazia had an appreciation for hard work and developed a fascination with the Mexican and Native American cultures of the southwest.

The Phelps Dodge Mine in Morenci was subject to strikes and closures, forcing workers to find other ways to make a living until it opened again. During one extended closure in 1920, Ted’s family returned to Italy.

Having had the privilege of seeing his Way of the Cross paintings during my visit to the Gallery in the Sun, I could see the influence his brief return to Italy had on him. Fearing the influence of Mussolini’s fascist movement on their children, the DeGrazia family returned to Morenci in 1925¹.

Not wanting to be a miner like his father, Ted hitched a ride to Tucson in 1933 to become a student at the University of Arizona. With only fifteen dollars to his name, he put himself through school by performing in a band and planting trees on campus². Ted was in and out of school for a period of thirteen years, and he eventually earned two master’s degrees — one in music and one in art.

degrazia stravinsky thesis painting
Stravinsky Nightingale Part 1, oil on canvas, 1944 on display at the Gallery in the Sun. DeGrazia painted eight works from sheet music supporting his thesis, “Art and its Relation to Music in Music Education.” • Photo by the author

Ted often lamented that the Indigenous people of the southwest were losing their way of life³. And after learning more about him, it struck me that DeGrazia’s way of life has also disappeared. Not even the most hardworking and motivated among us today would be able to put ourselves through college the way Ted did.

As much as I have in common with DeGrazia, his world is a foreign place to me as a person living in 2024. So as Ted mourned the loss of one way of life, I’m sad about the loss of both.

Ted married Alexandra Diamos in 1936, and they had three children. Over the years, DeGrazia worked as everything from a movie theater manager in Bisbee, Arizona to an airplane mechanic in Tucson. Ted and his first wife divorced in 1946.

DeGrazia was a man of many talents. In addition to being a painter, he was also a musician, sculptor, architect, and more. Ted traveled extensively throughout Arizona, California, and Mexico seeking inspiration for his art. It seems he was always looking for ways to express his connection with the southwest.

A highly prolific creator, getting to know DeGrazia the artist is easy. His second wife, Marion, once wrote that he created 1,600 oils, 3,500 watercolors, 2,500 original prints, 500 ceramics, 250 enamels, bronzes, and jewelry⁴.

You can visit the Gallery in the Sun at any time of the year and view a rotating collection featuring 15,000 of DeGrazia’s creations. And Ted’s work remains among the most reproduced in the world today.

marion and ted degrazia
Ted DeGrazia outside his first studio at Prince Road and Campbell Avenue with his second wife, Marion, in 1947. Marion was also an artist, but preferred to remain outside the spotlight. Marion ran Ted’s gallery while he traveled through Arizona, California, and Mexico seeking inspiration for his work. Marion sold the first studio after Ted’s death in 1982, and today it’s (sadly) a Chevron gas station. • Photo by user Sonoflightning, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Figuring out DeGrazia the person, however, is much trickier. Not only did he guard his privacy zealously, he also delighted in telling tall tales. Ted was a master of “going viral” way before the Internet existed.

DeGrazia realized people talking about him would sell more paintings, and he knew how to get their jaws wagging. Ted did nothing to dispel rumors about himself because he believed people expected artists to be eccentric.

“I want to be notorious rather than famous. Fame has too much responsibility. People forget you are human.”

— Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia

Ted’s most-known stunt was a 1976 protest against inheritance taxes on his artwork. Upset that his heirs wouldn’t be able to afford to inherit his work, DeGrazia loaded up an estimated $1 million worth of paintings⁵. Riding on horseback into the Superstition Mountains with friends, he built a pyre upon which he set fire to his own work.

degrazia burning paintings
Ted DeGrazia burning original paintings in the Superstition Mountains in 1976 to protest inheritance taxes on his artwork. • Photo by user Sonoflightning, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With the help of a lawyer, DeGrazia set up a foundation to preserve his artwork and gallery after his death. Despite his ballsy protest, the tax laws that vexed him haven’t changed⁶. One legend has it that DeGrazia hid paintings in the Superstition Mountains and said whoever found one could keep it.

Like many of us, DeGrazia was fallibly human. He married twice and had a romantic partnership outside his marriage for many years toward the end of his life. DeGrazia had four children, but he wasn’t always the most present husband and father. Ted’s relationship with his son Nick was especially difficult.

Despite his mistakes, Ted helped plenty of people once he was in a financial position to do so. He donated countless works to charitable causes, and was known to pay the mortgages, hospital bills, and college tuition expenses for friends and acquaintances⁷.

Although his work was recognized by artists like José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, Ted DeGrazia was never embraced by the art establishment of the time, and his work was written off as kitsch.

Even after he found success as a commercial artist, DeGrazia was rejected and criticized at every turn. The most hurtful rejection that Ted never forgot or forgave came in 1943 from his alma mater, the University of Arizona.

“I had come to school because I was a painter, not to become one.”

— DeGrazia

Unable to find a gallery willing to show his work, DeGrazia built his own studio in 1944. In those days, the corner of Prince Road and Campbell Avenue was on the outskirts of Tucson. But by the 1950s, Ted felt the pinch of the city moving in on him and sought to live and work elsewhere.

The “elsewhere” he found was a 10-acre piece of land along Swan Road in the Catalina Foothills of Tucson. Between 1952 and 1972, Ted and his Native American friends built several buildings there using materials from Morenci and around the property.

Their work included the Gallery in the Sun, a mission dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe and built in honor of Padre Kino, the DeGrazia residence, and many more.

ted degrazia and diego rivera
Famed muralist Diego Rivera (left) in Mexico City with Ted DeGrazia (right) in 1942. • Photo by user Sonoflightning, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ted and Marion lived, worked, and welcomed the public into their spaces up to and well after Ted’s death from cancer in 1982.

After Ted was gone, his wife was offered as much as a million dollars to sell the property and allow the buildings to be razed⁸. Marion refused because she loved the place as much as Ted did, and it’s all still there for us to enjoy today.

“I build my homes and galleries from dirt; someday they will turn back into dirt, just like you and I will. So you build what looks like a dead ship on those lovely hills, and I shall hide here in my dirt buildings. History will say who respected nature.”

— DeGrazia to his wealthy neighbors when they complained about his gallery

Marion and Ted are still there, too. Ted’s grave sits between the mission and the gallery, and Marion’s remains are at the base of a nearby tree.

Ted lived, as he put it, “four or five lifetimes in his one time on this Earth.” His life was fascinating, and while I tried to be brief, I’ve probably already gone off the rails in my excitement to tell you about him.

If you’d like to know more about DeGrazia, I recommend the book DeGrazia: The Man and the Myths by James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson.

What Drew Me to the Gallery in the Sun Museum

I’ve always been drawn to DeGrazia because he and I have a lot in common.

I was born the year he died. I’m an artist, and I love Arizona. And just like Ted, seeing the desert bulldozed for more homes and businesses hurts my heart.

DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun is a special place for many reasons. Not only was it built by the artist, but his work remains in the context in which it was created. You can walk around in the house Ted and Marion shared, and even see the paint splattered easel he used.

I’m not sure how anyone could visit the property and feel uninspired.

My favorite architectural detail is the cholla cactus floor. DeGrazia cut the skeleton of cholla into 4-inch chunks, sealed them with wax, and embedded them into concrete.

“The finished floor produces a feeling of walking in a strange, magic place. You see it; you feel it in your feet — texture on your toes, so to speak, a magic rug.”

— DeGrazia

degrazia hallway
Inside DeGrazia’s Gallery in the Sun. He cut cholla cactus into 4-inch chunks and embedded them in concrete to create this beautiful floor. • Author’s photos
cholla wood floor

The courtyard was also a delight, especially since I was visiting in spring. Filled with every kind of native plant and tree, it was alive with cactus blooms, hummingbirds, and the sounds of the surrounding desert.

Its most stunning feature was the near life-size sculpture of a Yaqui deer dancer set into a stone pool full of fish. Many of the cacti on the grounds only bloom for 24 hours, so we were lucky to see them.

Every door in the place is painted. In fact, Ted was known for painting and drawing on everything. When DeGrazia’s family went through his things after his death, they found artwork on pine knots, plywood, canvas, and a furnace panel⁹.

You may even meet someone who knew Ted during your visit. I’ve read that his living son, Domingo, plays guitar at one of the festivals. And DeGrazia’s romantic partner, Carol, was a docent at one time.

Ted’s original Mission in the Sun featured colorful murals on every wall. Sadly, a fire destroyed them in 2017. After two years of work by conservators, the mission opened to the public again in 2019.

When asked what he wanted for the future of his gallery a few days before he died, DeGrazia said:

“I want the gallery to be full of visitors. I want children dancing, music, drums, singing, celebrations there. I want the gallery to be a living museum, not a damn dead building, a tomb like the mines, but a place alive with color, people, events. I want to reach out to the world, hold all nations inside the circle of Los Niños. I want history told about my paintings, about art, about me.”

Although Ted’s been gone as long as I’ve been alive, a visit to the Gallery in the Sun feels like you could come around a corner and run into him. As many as 130,000 people visit every year, and gift shop sales are strong¹⁰.

The property plays host to festivities and events throughout the year, the largest being La Fiesta de Guadalupe on December 11. And Ted’s Little Gallery shows the works of guest artists regularly.

The museum continues to operate daily during the hours the artist himself insisted upon when he was alive. So it seems the foundation Ted left behind to preserve his legacy is doing a damn good job of living up to his wishes.

Visiting DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun Museum

DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun is a 10-acre site at 6300 North Swan Road in Tucson, Arizona. Open daily from 10 a.m. — 4 p.m. save major holidays, it features a gift shop, courtyard, several galleries, a mission, and many other buildings to explore.

It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is a lovely way to spend a couple of hours. Admission is $8.00 for adults and $5.00 for ages 13–18. Children 12 and under get free admission.

It’s worth visiting any time of year, but I imagine Arizona’s monsoon (July through September) would add extra magic to the experience.

Ted DeGrazia 1976 Documentary
1976 DeGrazia documentary they play in a room at the Gallery of the Sun Museum. I enjoyed it because it shows Ted walking around his gallery and explaining how he built it and why he made some of his design choices. • Video by Arizona Public Media

Ted DeGrazia lived as vividly as he painted. And when you visit his Gallery in the Sun, you’ll discover a man who was driven to craft his surroundings as passionately as he created his art.


[1]: James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths, 2nd ed. (University of Arizona Press, 2015), loc. 496.

[2:] James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths, 2nd ed. (University of Arizona Press, 2015), loc. 575.

[3]: James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths, 2nd ed. (University of Arizona Press, 2015), loc. 1409.

[4]: James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths, 2nd ed. (University of Arizona Press, 2015), loc. 3726; citing Marion De Grazia’s letter to “Dear Papa,” May 6, 1983, DeGrazia Foundation Archives, series 1, box 2, folder 19.

[5]: James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths, 2nd ed. (University of Arizona Press, 2015), loc. 3266.

[6]: James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths, 2nd ed. (University of Arizona Press, 2015), loc. 3398.

[7]: James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths, 2nd ed. (University of Arizona Press, 2015), loc. 1820.

[8], [9]: James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths, 2nd ed. (University of Arizona Press, 2015), loc. 2459.

[10]: James W. Johnson and Marilyn D. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths, 2nd ed. (University of Arizona Press, 2015), loc. 257.

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