Art in the desert: DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, Tucson, AZ

On December 28, 2016 I went back to the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I had been there the year before and loved it. There were fewer visitors this time, which made for a quieter, more contemplative experience.

Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia (1909-1982) was an artist at home in many disciplines but he’s best known as an impressionist painter. While his work covered a wide range of subject matter, his paintings of Native American children—reproduced on everything from greeting cards to bric-a-brac—earned him fame and scorn in equal measure.

While I like quite a bit of his work, I didn't go back primarily because of his art. The main draw for me continues to be the location, the architecture of the buildings, and the plants.

When DeGrazia brought the 10-acre parcel in 1949, it was in the middle of nowhere. There was no water and no electricity. Progress and development were inevitable, however, and over time the surrounding desert was bulldozed to make way for homes, businesses and even a country club.

Today the property sits in the middle of housing subdivisions. 10 acres is a lot of land, though, and it creates a comfortable buffer against neighbors. While you can see other houses, they're not oppressively close.

The parking lot is surrounded by native trees and succulents, including barrel cactus, cholla, and agaves.

My favorite building is the Mission in the Sun. DeGrazia hand-built this simple adobe chapel in 1952 with the help of friends. It is in memory of Padre Eusebio Kino, the Jesuit priest who founded many missions in Mexico and Arizona (including San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson), and is dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.

DeGrazia said about his little mission:
“I built the mission for myself. I’m not a churchgoing man but I am a religious man and perhaps religious only within me. Religion to me is right or wrong. You do right and you’re a religious man. It’s not Catholic it’s just an old chapel for anybody who wants to go in there whether Christian or non-Christian.”

I'm not a religious man and I don't want to sound corny, but inside the chapel there was a spirit (for a lack of a better word) that even I could feel. 

The floor is rock, and there's a large central opening in the roof. Seating is sparse, and Spartan. People leave photos and other mementos on the altar, together with wishes and prayers for better health or happiness.

The walls are adorned with DeGrazia's paitings of Indian children and angels, the themes that made him famous.

Outside, there are cactus and agaves wherever you look.

In the early 1960s DeGrazia’s fame began to grow and he was finally able to build the gallery he had been envisioning. “The gallery was designed by me,” he is quoted as saying. “I wanted to have the feeling of the Southwest. I wanted to build it so that my paintings would feel good inside.” 

Completed in 1965, the Gallery in the Sun is a modest, low-slung adobe building surrounded by naturalistic desert plantings. The adobe bricks were all made on site. 

The metal door at the main entrance is a sight to see:

The courtyard in the middle of the gallery compound is a fantasy land: a garden filled to the brim not only with plants but with pottery, sculptures, Western Americana, and all manner of objects, including musical instruments. It's a bit rough around the edges thanks to benign neglect, but in my book that makes it even more intriguing. No, it's not an impeccably landscaped space but I don't think that was ever the intent. But look closer. There's a lot of to discover!

Click here to see a larger version of this photo

The horseshoe-shaped gallery may look relatively small on the outside, but it's actually quite extensive. It has 13 rooms where works from the massive permanent collection (15,000 DeGrazia originals—paintings, sculptures, ceramics and even jewelry) are displayed. DeGrazia's art is one thing, but the structure itself just as impressive. Take a look at the floor: It is made of cement and cross-sections of cholla skeletons. 

Before I went on my merry way, I couldn't help myself. I got my selfie stick out of the car and took a few snaps of myself and this massive fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni) in the parking lot:

Some of the descriptions in this article appeared in similar form in the post I wrote about my previous visit to the DeGrazia Gallery.



  1. That panoramic view of the courtyard is wonderful, as is your selfie - you can put the latter on your book jacket when you get around to writing/publishing your personal tome on succulents of the southwest!

  2. A strong Old West vibe--I like it. So much of Phoenix looks like a shopping mall. This is unmistakably Arizona. It also looks like someone's home rather than a commercial development. It's charming in its individual vision.

  3. I think Hoov use of the word charming is spot on. When I was reading your description of a garden in the middle of housing tracts that have grown up around it over the years I couldn't help but think of our norcal entry into that genre. I don't feel your reference to spirituality to be corny at all. I find the Southwest , particularly places like Monument Valley to be intensely spiritual. For me it has nothing to do with 'religion'.


Post a Comment