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Sante Graziani, 85; artist made murals across the country

A mural that Sante Graziani painted in 1941 still decorates the lobby of the post office in Bluffton, Ohio, part of a body of work that won him national recognition at age 22 and launched his career as artist and mentor to generations of young artists.

His artwork -- from murals and portraits to book illustrations and an innovative approach to the Pop Art of the 1960s -- was marked by his distinctive style, and it is still exhibited in museums and galleries around the country. His murals can be found in schools, banks, clinics, corporate offices, and libraries.

Mr. Graziani, 85, the recipient of many art awards and dean from 1951 to 1981 of what was then called the School of the Worcester Art Museum, died March 15 of cancer in the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Alexandra and Christopher Osgood, in Princeton. He lived in Hamden, Conn., and Pompano Beach, Fla.

''Sante Graziani was a talented artist and teacher whose work was greatly inspired by his lifelong association with art museums," said James A. Welu, director of the Worcester Art Museum. ''His vivid paintings, beginning with his early murals in towns across the country to his later canvases of appropriated imagery from sources worldwide, capture the optimistic spirit of 20th century America."

It was during Mr. Graziani's tenure, Welu said, that the Worcester Art Museum was able to build a new home for the school, the Higgins Education Wing, in 1969 and 1970.

In 1976, to mark the country's bicentennial, Mr. Graziani painted for Worcester's downtown a large outdoor mural featuring five portraits of George Washington encircling a large star, superimposed on the image of an American flag.

During the Pop Art craze of the 1960s, Mr. Graziani borrowed from old masters such as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Bellini, and wove their subjects into his geometric designs. Many were exhibited at his show at the Kanegis Gallery on Newbury Street in 1964.

Edgar J. Driscoll Jr., the Globe's art critic at the time, reported that Mr. Graziani's paintings were done with ''notable draftsmanship and craftsmanship. . . . The new reality he gives his subject is a meaningful one with art's past and present strikingly rolled into one."

Four years later, Mr. Graziani told Driscoll that he ''never felt the past should be denied in art or in life. I stretch my mind back as well as forward, and I like to work and compare old space and new in the same painting."

Mr. Graziani was a renaissance man. He designed and built race cars. He drove motorcycles. He played musical instruments, most recently the cello with the Cheshire and Hamden symphony orchestras, both in Connecticut. ''He had incredibly high energy and radiated self-confidence," Christopher Osgood said.

His fascination with foreign sports cars and auto racing started early. The racing ended in 1954, his daughter said, ''after the car flipped over while he was driving my mother around the race track in Thompson, Conn. She was pregnant with me at the time."

In his life and in his art, Mr. Graziani was not afraid of taking risks, his daughter said. ''Risk-taking is a very important part of life," he would tell her.

Mr. Graziani was born in Cleveland, one of two children of Tuscan immigrants Giovanni and Cleonice (Riccardi) Graziani. At West Technical High School, his teacher, artist Paul Ulen, encouraged Mr. Graziani's talent. It won him scholarships to the Cleveland Institute of Art and Yale University.

The national prize he won at 22 for his murals and other work was the Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship in Art, given to one artist each year by Columbia University and the National Academy of Design. The scholarship was discontinued in 1952.

In 1943, Mr. Graziani earned his bachelor's degree in fine arts from Yale University. From 1943 to 1946, he served in the Army as a second lieutenant and was assigned duties that used his artistic talent. At a military hospital in Little Rock, Ark., for example, he had to complete precise medical illustrations of surgery he observed. Among his US government commissions were two murals for a World War II memorial for the American Battle Monument at the military cemetery in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.

In Little Rock, Mr. Graziani met Jacquelee McMurry, a Texas native who was serving in the Women's Army Corps. They were married in 1944.

Mr. Graziani taught at Yale from 1946 to 1951, and Claes Oldenburg was one of his students. In 1947, he won an international competition for a mural in the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts. He earned a master's degree of fine arts from Yale in 1948.

From 1982 to 1995, he taught at Paier College of Art in Hamden, Conn.

Mr. Graziani's wife died in 1997 after what their daughter described as an ''on-again, off-again marriage."

''When they met, he was the dashing Italian -- an Army officer and Yale graduate -- she the platinum blond with the Texas accent whose father had indulged her. . . . They loved each other but couldn't live with each other," Alexandra Osgood said. ''Before my mother died, my parents agreed to be buried together at Swan Point Cemetery, a 19th-century garden cemetery overlooking Narragansett Bay."

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Graziani leaves two sons, Michael of Bohol, the Philippines, and Gregory of Pompano Beach, Fla.

Mr. Graziani did not want a memorial service, his family said, but a memorial exhibition of his work is planned to observe the first anniversary of his death.

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