This piece is excerpted from the Weekly’s 831 section and was originally published on April 27, 2017.
On a warm afternoon, John Cerney is in his Salinas studio adding a second layer of beige paint to a plywood version of a local celebrity. The partly painted Brittany Nielsen, a morning anchor for KSBW, gripping a microphone and holding out her other hand as if to stop someone, will be used as a mile-marker for this year’s Big Sur International Marathon.
“This will make a few runners slow down to take selfies,” Cerney jokes.
But it’s not his series of marathon mile-markers (including a hooded man holding a sign reading “The end is near” that was discontinued after the Boston Marathon bombing) that have earned Cerney’s status as a pioneer in folk art. He’s best known for his towering plywood farmworkers and life-sized scenes of fruit markets and baseball games placed prominently along Monterey County roads.
Cerney dubs his works “highway art.” But for the early part of his life, Cerney had more of a green thumb than an eye for art. After graduating from Salinas High in 1972, he worked in cooling facilities of Admiral Agriculture for the better part of a decade. In his mid-20s and ready for a change, he enrolled in Cal State Long Beach and earned an art degree in 1984. He spent the next few years selling pencil portraits for celebrity clients like late comedic actor John Candy and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
Pencil drawings paid well, but Cerney longed for a larger audience. A mural of a mechanic shop titled Tony’s Friendly Auto Service, painted on a century-old barn off Highway 68 during one of Cerney’s visits back home, was his first public art project. Then, in 1997, Cerney completely remodeled the mural as Sam’s Friendly Produce Stand.
Cerney relocated back to Salinas to pursue his passion for bigger art, and the commercial murals he created for businesses around Monterey County garnered a response.
Alan Daoud, owner of Alan’s Auto Glass in Seaside, commissioned Cerney to make a mural featuring Daoud’s mother and young son. The humorous scene of a shocked woman looking toward a boy who lodged a baseball in a classic car’s windshield is mounted on a building at the corner of Del Monte Boulevard.
And the piece attracts attention: “There are people who come in just to ask if they can take their picture with the painting outside,” Daoud says.
It’s that degree of interest – strong enough that drivers slow down or stop – that is more validating to Cerney than gallery exhibits or awards.
“When you’re driving, your mind is in a trance. You’re lost in thoughts of ‘Oh, I have to get groceries,’” Cerney says. “Then, suddenly, you see something strange, it’s art. It shakes up your day for a few seconds.”
His first set of huge figures, two 18-foot-tall farmworkers standing busy with their backs turned to the road, in a lettuce field off Highway 68, was a gesture of admiration for the Salad Bowl of America’s workforce. “They’re the reason the country prospers,” Cerney says
Celine Pinet, dean of Fine Arts and Social and Behavioral Sciences at Hartnell College, celebrates Cerney’s work for its empowering qualities.
“The size of his work is always interesting,” Pinet says. “But what’s even better is that the people of Salinas Valley can identify with it. It’s public art for the populace.”
Cerney’s studio workstation, which he occupies from 9am to 10pm on most days, is well suited for his sky-high art. Plywood figures, initially white and covered with grid lines, lean against a large easel constructed by a carpenter friend in the studio nextdoor. A rainbow of acrylic paint jars and a giant magnifying glass fixed on a photo of a child nestled in a pile of produce surround the easel. A skylight directly above the easel shines sunlight right on the piece of cauliflower Cerney is shading.
The cauliflower alone has taken him a day to paint: “I’m a perfectionist,” he says.