Most American communities boast public art installations that have come to define them. Chicago’s Calder Flamingo and Cloud Gate (aka “The Bean”); “New York City Financial District’s Charging Bull; and St. Louis’ Gateway Arch all come to mind. Here in Monterey County, and in Salinas in particular, the freestanding murals painted by artist John Cerney have come to be synonymous with the area. That’s because most celebrate the rich agricultural heritage of the Salinas Valley and honor the many men and women who are the key players in that industry.
John Cerney is a native son, born in Carmel and raised in Salinas. After graduating Salinas High, he followed the path of many of his peers by entering the lettuce business. “I worked in the coolers, drove a forklift, that kind of stuff,” he says. He had no art training, and, indeed, little interest.
His work in the ag business took him to other produce-growing areas such as El Cerrito and Blythe—places that contain few attractions to occupy a young man’s time. On a whim, he bought some paints and decorated his van with a rendition of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill album cover, garnering plenty of honks and high-fives on the freeway. “That was the seed of my public art,” Cerney says.
At 26, Cerney decided that his current line of work was a dead end and decided to attend college at Cal State Long Beach. “I took a couple of art classes and got into it,” he says. “I soon became an art major.” With degree in hand, the budding artist returned to Salinas—and went back into the lettuce business. Looking around for suitable sites on which to paint a mural, his eye fell on an old barn at the intersection of Highway 68 and Hitchcock Road, aka “Confederate Corner.”
“I tracked down the building’s owner and got permission to paint it,” he recalls. It became his first public art installation.
Soon, a friend, artist D.J. Hall, sent a commission his way to paint the portrait of a writer of the television show “Growing Pains” in 1985.
“I quoted $1,000 for the work, quit my job and moved back to LA,” Cerney recalls. “The guy loved it and gave me a $500 bonus. Word got around the show’s set, resulting in commissions from the entire cast. “I did that kind of work for celebrities for several years, including John Candy and Wayne Gretzky,” the artist says.
“The next public art installation I did here was the baseball game mural on a barn next to Highway 101 in Prunedale,” Cerney says. He got into a bit of hot water with CalTrans for that one, since he sold local businesses on the idea of making their logos part of the work, like the ads at a real ballpark. Once he got that sorted out, commissions started to roll in. He painted a few murals here and there for commercial clients and hit upon the idea of adding freestanding painted elements in front of them to add depth and dimension.
That led to a revelation and the invention of a whole new art form.
“I realized I didn’t need buildings to paint on any more,” Cerney recalls. He learned how to build scaffolding from some contractor buddies and started creating the larger-than-life, photo-realistic portraits of ag industry figures that currently adorn the Monterey County landscape.
“At this point, there are between 30 and 40 of my pieces around the county,” he says. And he’s branched out in subject matter: recent installations include a young girl on the building that houses the Carmel Valley Art Association, a portrait of actor James Dean that adorns the newly renovated Brookdale Lodge in Santa Cruz County; the dog that welcomes visitors to the SPCA for Monterey County on Highway 68; and the motorcycle and race car across the street at Laguna Seca Raceway. Some of Cerney’s pieces advertise businesses, but some are just there for the fun of it. “I like the idea that people wonder why they’re there,” he says.
In recent years, Cerney has gifted many towns across the nation with his creations. “Once or twice a year, I will do a free piece and donate it to a community,” he says. At this point, he estimates that his work resides in 22 states.
Learn more about John Cerney and his unique art form, including a video of him at work, by visiting www.johncerneymurals.com.