Huge figures make statement

Artist entertains with along-the-road scenes Fifteen or so years ago Salinas artist John Cerney knew something about the produce industry and something about art, and now he makes his living from a combination of the two.

Cerney's work is familiar to thousands of motorists on Highway 68 between Salinas and Monterey. His cut-out paintings of human figures, three times actual size and quite realistic in style, rate a double take from the roadway. Several of his giant, static farmworkers toil at "The Farm," an operation specializing in organic produce and public tours.

Photos of his work, which also includes massive murals decorating packinghouses and other local businesses, appeared on the front and rear covers of the 1999 Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner's Crop Report.

Another example, on a hillside near Aromas, is a barn wall painted to represent a crowd at a 1950s Wrigley Field baseball game and catches the eye of southbound motorists along Highway 101 north of Salinas. It replaced a mural he did several years earlier on the same barn.

Even more nostalgic is a billboard in Salinas of a black and white scene of a gas station and characters from the motion picture "Grapes of Wrath." For irony, Cerney added a full-color, head and shoulders image of celebrated author and local native John Steinbeck.

Some 60 of Cerney's murals and cut-out figures have appeared from Monterey County to as far away as Buffalo, N.Y. Some draw interest to Iowa corn fields, others adorn backyards in Los Angeles or Phoenix. Another, a painted watchdog, turns away would-be intruders.

Fortunes turn around Working out of his studio in Salina's light industrial district, Cerney now gets more orders than he can handle, but things weren't always that way.

A Carmel native who grew up in Salinas, he decided relatively late to go to college, and by the time he was 31 he'd completed an art degree at Cal State, Long Beach. Over the years he'd worked at packinghouses from El Centro to Salinas.

"I still wasn't certain how I was going to make a living after I got the degree, so I went back to work at Bruce Church in Salinas. I picked up some art work doing pencil drawings on the side," he recalls.

He also did his initial two large murals without pay. The first was in Salinas on an auto service garage that has since become a produce stand. It depicted a group of life-size figures and automobiles. The next job, a traffic scene with more people and cars, was the first of his two murals on the barn near Aromas.

In 1986 he decided to make a go with art and landed the first of a string of jobs rendering pencil drawings from family photographs in Long Beach.

His work expanded to more families and several motion picture celebrities, but something was missing. "I would take a photograph of the people and then do a pencil drawing of it. The money was good, but it's a small market. People get a drawing and it hangs on a wall. I was looking for something like a mural, something making a bigger statement to a bigger audience."

By 1991, back in Salinas, Cerney learned he could make a statement - and a dollar or two at the same time - with a novel form of advertising. He did a mural of a truck loaded with produce and was paid by packinghouses whose labels appeared on boxes on the painted truck.

Since then he's done nearly a dozen ag-related jobs, several in collaboration with another artist, Dong Sun Kim. Prominent are the expansive murals at the River Ranch packinghouse on Abbott Street in Salinas. One depicts harvesting in the field, while another, his largest work, includes human figures with a gigantic, 30-foot rendering of the cartoon character, Popeye, used as a marketing symbol by River Ranch.

Once he has an idea for a mural, Cerney takes many photographs, maybe as many as 100, posing the models to convey a mood or message. In the case of the giant figures at The Farm, all are employees or former employees and are recognizable.

After selecting the photos he wants to use, he lays off grids on enlargements, then transfers the image to larger squares on sheets of special, one-inch, paper-surfaced plywood. He cuts out the figure and paints with acrylics. Some he has repainted, but the durable paints have stood up to seven or more years in the elements.

The figures are steel-braced and set on embedded timbers to resist Salinas Valley winds. A single figure, installed, fetches $2,500 to $3,000.

Rockwell style Cerney says he thinks his realistic approach is akin to that of the late Norman Rockwell, whose work, typically conveying some wordless message, was long ago popularized in "The Saturday Evening Post" and other publications.

"You need to give an image quickly," Cerney says with a snap of his fingers, "and that's particularly true when your audience is moving at 65 miles an hour along a highway. That's why I started to make the figures larger."

The giant cut-outs, he adds, give motorists seeing them for the first time an artistic experience where they least expect it. "They don't make you feel intimidated like you might in an art exhibit. And when they are cut out they appear more realistic."

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