Tucson: A Gallery in the Sun

Art galleries line the sun-drenched streets of downtown Tucson, but the one that truly embodies the Mexican-Indian roots of this desert town is well off the beaten path. The DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun is perched in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains and surrounded by prickly pear — a sort of grassroots, artistic extension of San Xavier del Bac, that much-visited Spanish Catholic mission founded in 1699 in the middle of what is now the Tohono O’odham reservation, just south of Tucson.

Chapel at DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun

Chapel at DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun (photo Cathleen McCarthy)

Ted DeGrazia was the quintessential outsider artist of the Southwest. Unable to sell his work in the ’30s and ’40s, he built his own showcase, eventually expanding it to several galleries and a separate chapel. DeGrazia, who died in 1982, is now a local legend whose work carries hefty price tags. (The Tucson Museum of Art is showing 20 of his less-known works through October 25 in a special exhibit, DeGrazia: A Modernist Perspective.)

But the most fascinating art here is the place itself. DeGrazia designed and constructed the adobe structures by hand, with the help of local Indian friends. Visitors enter through an iron replica of a Yuma prison gate into a tunnel inspired by the Arizona mining camps where DeGrazia grew up. Walls are painted with dry brush, textured with hay or covered with murals. Slices of jumping cactus mark pathways in the plaster floors.

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Inside chapel at Gallery in the Sun (photo Cathleen McCarthy)

The galleries are filled with paintings of local Indians and landscapes, and hand-built display cases hold the artist’s ceramics, jewelry, glasswork and bronzes. Many of DeGrazia’s portraits are cloyingly sentimental. His best work was inspired by religious fervor and his own vivid imagination; the murals inside the chapel are a classic example.

The retrospective DeGrazia: 100 Years, 100 Works, at the gallery through January 15, shows many of the original works that eventually brought the artist international acclaim, turning his flamboyant little studio complex into the cult classic it is today.