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It will come as no surprise to anyone who knew the late David DiChiera, composer and founder of the Michigan Opera Theatre, that he came from an artistically talented family. 

But who knew that his mother, Maria -- who arrived in the U.S. from Calabria, Italy, as a poor immigrant in 1920 -- would become an accomplished painter of primitive abstracts? 

In recognition, Wasserman Projects in Eastern Market will host a one-day exhibition and sale of her works Sunday from 4 p.m.-6 p.m., with all proceeds benefiting MOT's David DiChiera Artistic Fund

Maria, who never attended school as a child, took up painting in her late 60s at the instigation of her daughter-in-law, Karen. The suggestion took. 

"It was like an awakening, and I don't say that lightly," said Lisa DiChiera. "My grandmother honestly had such a hard life -- leaving her family in Italy and arriving here not speaking a word of English, with a newborn who died shortly thereafter. It was just a hard immigrant life."

Maria lived in California, where she raised her four children, including David. But in later years, she'd spent summers at the DiChiera household in Bloomfield Hills. 

"My grandmother wanted to be heard," Lisa said, "but never knew how to be. My mother decided to give her something to express herself. I think she thought it would be art therapy."

Therapy morphed into passion. Before she died at 92, Maria produced some 200-300 paintings. 

"They were all very naïve, which is why I call them folk art," Lisa said. "But the feeling in the paintings is so joyous. And people really bought her work." 

Indeed, the Wasserman exhibition will not be Maria's first. In the late 1970s, she had a show at Detroit's Harmonie Park Cafe. And in 1987, Maria was one of three artists in a folk-art show at the Michigan Gallery, "Innocent Visions." 

Gallery owner Gary Wasserman says he was unexpectedly struck when David DiChiera first showed him some of Maria's pieces a couple years ago. 

"I think her work is charming," Wasserman said. "I actually have two of her paintings."  

One of the things he particularly likes is what he calls their authenticity and lack of calculation. There's nothing whatsoever derivative about them.

"Absolutely not," Wasserman said. "She wouldn't have known whom to copy. That's part of what makes them so nice." 

In an affecting touch, the old woman generally wrote a descriptive line or two on the back of each of her canvases: 

"A valley of grass and flowers and hundreds of little birds are all under the flowers," read one, "which are eating, singing and making love."

Maria's paintings on sale at Wasserman will range from $75-$500. 

At the estate sale in May at David DiChiera's house on the Detroit Golf Course, Lisa and her sister Cristina were unexpectedly reminded of lingering interest in Maria's artwork. 

"Apparently one man came to the sale looking for my grandmother’s paintings," Lisa said. "He said he just assumed there’d be some available." 

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'Paintings by Maria DiChiera'

Sunday - 4 p.m.-6 p.m.

Wasserman Projects, 3434 Russell, #502, Detroit

All sales will benefit MOT's David Dichiera Artistic Fund 

(313) 818-3550

wassermanprojects.com

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