Pick of the Week

Miss Mary's Masterpieces

Most longtime Tucsonans are familiar with the late Ted DeGrazia, a nationally known painter of whimsical Southwestern art and the founder the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun. But many folks may not have heard of his wife, Marion, who died here in 2002 at the age of 97.

Besides being a mother and wife, she was also the co-founder and full-time manager of the DeGrazia Gallery--and she was an artist herself. Marion deserves a lot more credit than she often received in her famous husband's shadow.

"Miss Mary," as she was later known, was born Marion L. Shertet in Albion, New York, in 1905. After studying sculpture and modeling at Columbia University under renowned sculptor Oronzio Maldarelli, she devoted herself to creating with her hands.

As legend has it, one rainy day in New York City in 1941, Marion and her 10-year-old son, Hal Grieve, were sitting in their apartment and wishing they were elsewhere. Marion pointed to a jigsaw puzzle showing a map of the United States and said to Hal, "Pick a place you'd like to go"--and Hal randomly pointed to Tucson. The two packed up and moved here without knowing a soul. But Marion soon met Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia, whose first words to her were, "Where have you been?" The two made an immediate connection that turned into a lifetime collaboration.

After they married, Ted and Marion founded the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, which was built with traditional adobe bricks and the capable hands of Ted's Native American friends. In 2006, the gallery site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Although the DeGrazia complex is a beautiful accomplishment, the listing was more a result of the gallery's association with Ted's life and art than its architecture.

Marion was completely devoted to the gallery, keeping it open and running seven days a week. When her husband made excursions to visit Native American friends or prospect for gold, Marion held down the fort in Tucson, and while Ted painted, his wife engaged in her own art--sculpture.

She worked with a wide range of materials, from bronze to beeswax, and her primary subjects were angels and Madonna figures--but she was also fond of bears, horses, flowers, birds and other elements of nature. Actually, much of her subject matter (like her fanciful style) was similar to her husband's. But as Ted's art grew more and more famous, Marion's creations were tucked away on the DeGrazia property, largely as decorations for their home and courtyard. When Marion's husband died in 1982, she stayed on as the matriarch and protector of the Gallery in the Sun for the next 20 years, and she continued to sculpt and model for much of that time. But her work was never promoted or exhibited.

Marion's son, however, has collected her work over the years, and has now formally cataloged it for public display. This Friday, for the first time ever, the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun will present The M Collection--made up of 80 original Marion DeGrazia pieces--for all to see.

"Many people who came to the gallery over the years never knew Marion was an artist in her own right," says Kristine Peashock, the Gallery in the Sun's director of collections and exhibitions (and a contributor to the Weekly music section), "and I hope that this exhibition will change that. I also think Marion's work is very inspiring, particularly her use of natural elements. ... Friends and gallery staff would bring her a piece of wood that was twisted in an interesting way--an unusual rock, a piece of cactus skeleton--and she would see the intrinsic artistic possibilities. A lot of her art came about in this fashion--not plotted or mapped out, but being inspired by the organic. I think this gives the exhibition a very warm feeling."

Gallery marketing director Susan Vance agrees: "She made some really fun things out of clay, wood and seashells, very whimsical works of art, and pretty incredible to look at."

Every piece in this collection is signed with an "M," which Marion did to differentiate her work from Ted's. But it's worth noting that Marion and Ted worked so closely together on ceramics that Marion would often sign her husband's name. According to Vance, when she once remarked on the similarities between Marion and Ted's work, Marion said, "Where do you think he gets his ideas?"

The M Collection: Sculptures and Castings by Marion DeGrazia opens with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 28, at the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, 6300 N. Swan Road. The exhibition continues through Friday, Feb. 29, 2008, and is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Call 299-9191 or visit www.degrazia.org for more information.

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