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South Jersey

Saturday, February 24, 2001

Camden-bred artist shares portrait of `Big J'

Courier-Post Staff

Anna Branco, 80, of Shamong, remembers growing up with a brother who drew "everywhere he could find a place," including the street outside their South Camden rowhouse.

The drawings were good enough that the street-sweepers pushing brooms outside would steer around Larry Tofani's work.

"I used pieces of plaster I'd find in old houses," Tofani, 79, recalled this week. "It showed up like chalk on the asphalt."

That was a long time ago, during the Depression.

But Tofani kept drawing, and on Friday he presented one of his paintings to the Navy in a small ceremony at the Pentagon.

The painting, of the USS New Jersey, will be given to the Navy Museum in Washington, D.C., where it will become part of the museum's permanent collection and available for exhibits there or elsewhere.

Tofani, who drew for The Philadelphia Inquirer, TV Guide and the Budd Co. before retiring to Florida several years ago, said that he painted New Jersey because he wanted to do something for his old hometown.

He remembers Camden fondly as a vibrant industrial city and wants young people there today to be proud of it, too.

That's why he has completed a second oil painting of the battleship, which he hopes to one day present to the Secretary of the Navy on the deck of the ship, now docked on the Camden Waterfront and being readied for visitors.

And that's why he made the second painting more vivid than the first.

The first painting shows the battleship firing its 16- inch guns at an island off Japan and some splashes in the background.

The second painting is his Star Wars version, Tofani said, with planes in the air, explosions everywhere and a line of dozens of other ships on the horizon.

"I wanted to paint it like it really was," he said of the action against the Japanese island of Honshu.

He knows because he was there. He served aboard an oil tanker that was part of a huge battle group, consisting of combatants and support ships.

And he thinks the action will attract young people and call their attention not only to the battleship but to the contribution Camden made to industry, including shipbuilding.

Tofani himself worked on the construction of the USS South Dakota, another battleship, at the shipyard of the New York Shipbuilding Co. in 1943 before he enlisted in the Navy.

The paintings of the battleship did not come easy for Tofani, despite a lifetime of experience as an artist, including work designing the outside configuration of the Metroliner rail car.

For the last few years Tofani has suffered from macular degeneration, a condition that gradually robs its victims of their vision and has left him all but blind in one eye.

His struggle with depth perception, he said, has forced him to switch from a brush to a palette knife and master another technique.

"You adjust," he said. "An artist paints."

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