PALM HARBOR — In 1997, Ted Giavis showed up on a list of the top 12 American realist artists, just six spots down from Norman Rockwell.
The seascapes in his living room show why the University of Brighton School of the Arts put Mr. Giavis on that list. Tauntingly real, they are what he saw.
Tall, green blades of grass. Shadows on mountainsides. Hundreds of individual rocks.
Mr. Giavis died on Saturday, three days after breaking his arm in a fall. He was 88.
He grew up in Lowell, Mass., the son of a Greek grocer. As a child, he once fell from a horse and badly broke a leg. He took refuge in drawing.
The Army quickly spotted his talent, and ordered him to draw on company time. Mr. Giavis happily obliged, painting portraits of generals and filling up sketch books with scenes from Guam and Japan in World War II. He drew soot-stained military planes, rutted streets where villagers lived and bombed-out landscapes. Another illustration depicted a lone soldier reading a letter in his barracks surrounded by the gear of his buddies beneath bunks or hanging from hooks to take advantage of every inch of space.
After the war, Mr. Giavis worked for the Boston Globe, then the Rahl Studios in New York, supplying commercial art for Fortune 500 companies.
He wielded his brush like a powerful magnet, attracting every particle of life through its fibers. He painted gleaming trucks and swimming pools and loaves of bread. Sometimes, his work landed on magazine covers.
He met a woman named Theano 15 years his junior and asked her out. They later married.
If he saw her running a vacuum cleaner, he would take it from her and finish the job. "I felt like a kept woman," said Theano Giavis.
Mr. Giavis worked nonstop — up to two days without a break — as deadlines approached.
"It was hard making friends because the artwork came first," said Mrs. Giavis, who also watched the money after learning that she was the better bookkeeper.
A high point came in 1960, with a two-page Goodyear advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post. Mr. Giavis re-created trucks in a parade surrounded by a throng of townspeople.
The University of Brighton's art school would cite the illustration 37 years later, when it ranked Mr. Giavis No. 8 on its list of the top 12 American realist artists. Mr. Giavis was thrilled when he found out. (C.G. Evers, famous for drawing battleships, came first. Norman Rockwell was No. 2.)
"He said, 'You don't know what this means,' " Theano Giavis recalled.
Mr. Giavis had an impish side, as his niece learned when as a child she led a seance in Mr. Giavis' Connecticut basement.
"We tried to bring back Alfred Hitchcock," recalled Denise Warner, 47, who said her uncle reminded her of the actor Walter Matthau. When Mr. Giavis learned what the children were doing, he switched on the intercom system and spooked the party with his best Hitchcock impersonation.
Mr. Giavis retired at age 70, and moved to Palm Harbor seven years later. He and Theano regularly played gin rummy with friends. When the conversation lulled, he filled it with a line from Oklahoma:
"Everything's up to date in Kansas Ciiiity …"
Without deadlines, he painted what he wanted. Scenes from the New Hampshire coast line, featuring giant outcroppings of rock. The Meteora monastery atop a cliff in Greece. At least five paintings of the Pony Express.
He showed many of the works in 2005.
"They were just glorious," said Billie Poteat, the supervisor at the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center. "Everybody who came in was just amazed. His attention to detail was just staggering."
The small room he used as a studio looks like the center of an explosion. Paintings lean back to back against a wall.
For Mr. Giavis his paintings were never quite finished.
"He couldn't stop," said Varnavas Zagaris, a friend of Mr. Giavis'. "It was his breath."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2431.