The irrigator leans on his shovel in a Salinas field, his shoulders squared and his hand on his hip, as though he's taking a moment to assess his labor. The farmer crouches next to him, clad in a cowboy hat and work boots, holding a handful of soil and gazing out on the gently rolling Santa Lucia Mountains in the distance.
It's a scene that's played out thousands of times in fields across the fertile Salinas Valley, but this one elicits a double-take from drivers zipping past in their road-weary blast through farm country. The two men are 18 feet tall, made of varnished plywood, and have been in the same position since 1995, when artist John Cerney created them.
His initial two-man tribute to the labor force for Crown Packing, which hired him to paint the figures, eventually spawned nine more “giant people,” as Cerney calls them, in this particular field on the side of Highway 68: There's another irrigator, an older man holding two heads of lettuce at the farm's entrance, and workers harvesting, thinning, and packing lettuce.
The project also spawned the beginning of what would eventually become Cerney's life work: painting large plywood figures that stand like oversized scarecrows in roadside fields around the country. Cerney's people are often doing nothing but smiling, but their wordless presence starts a dialogue between highway travelers and the farmland they're passing through.
America's highways used to be a lot more whimsical. Road trippers in the '30s and '40s were used to a certain amount of kitsch on the side of the road, from the occasional giant doughnut or teapot-shaped gas station to the rhyming slogans of Burma Shave and the cartoonish billboards for Pea Soup Andersen's. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's establishment of the Interstate Highway System in 1956 made vehicle travel more efficient, but the expansive interstates and the increased speed limits that came with them also made much of the campy roadside art irrelevant, blurry noise in an increasingly noisy nation.
Cerney, a slight, balding man of 60, makes paintings that build on the tradition of roadside art and summon a reassuring, Norman Rockwell sense of Americana. Farm life holds no special appeal for him, but given that his plywood people are placed in fields and he's based in one of California's most profitable farming regions, farm paintings are the ones that bring him the most attention. In contrast to most billboards by the side of the road, these aren't slick corporate advertisements, but images of real people that force your attention to the fields outside your window. It's an interaction deeper than idly wondering if those green rows contain strawberries or broccoli.
His work is scattered around the country, but concentrated in Monterey County. Along with the 10 figures at the demonstration farm, the most visible are figures you've seen if you've ever driven 101 between Gilroy and Paso Robles: the Dole Pineapple man, the lettuce trimmer, the winery advertisements, the tribute to the now-defunct Pat's Pimentos. Further afield, Cerney's created figures for the Alberta Beef Producers and Jigsaw Ranch in Oklahoma — all of them portraits of real people engaged in their everyday activities.
When he's not painting farm workers, Cerney favors images of American icons and small domestic scenes. Giant portraits of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe grace the highways of California (Dean's is on Highway 46 near where he met his death, Monroe's is on Highway 1 outside of Castroville, where she was crowned Artichoke Queen in 1948). Cerney's larger-than-life Amelia Earhart is in Kansas, looking at a road map after her plane ran out of gas. A Cerney flying saucer touched down in Roswell earlier this year, his aliens greeted by the head of the Chamber of Commerce holding out a pie and a young man offering their saucer a jump start. Cerney also likes more surreal works that do little but wake you up from your road stupor, like a giant baby in a field in Arizona and three 12-foot faces expressing anger, confusion, and disappointment along I-80, outside of Iowa City.
And as I drove around Salinas with Cerney, he pointed out his murals and cutouts on what seemed like every corner: a car wreck scene at an auto body shop, a domestic picture-hanging scene at a frame shop, a mural of the Big Sur marathon on the side of a shopping center, a baseball player at a trophy store, and so on, each telling a visual vignette about small-town life. I realized that, without meaning to, John Cerney has colonized Salinas almost as much as John Steinbeck, the valley's most famous native son and the object of many pilgrimages to this corner of Monterey County.
Just as I visited Salinas Valley first through Steinbeck's eyes as I read Of Mice and Men in high school, I understood more about the place that I was passing through when I first drove down 101 and saw Cerney's giant people. In a certain light, Cerney's plywood figures are an extension of Steinbeck's lifelong passion for giving voice to the voiceless.
John Cerney was born in Salinas but started his career in Los Angeles, doing private graphite pencil drawings for clients including John Candy and Wayne Gretzky. During the summers, he'd come back up to Salinas and paint murals on the sides of barns, like the homage to Wrigley Field you can still see 11 miles north of the town on the 101. The giant plywood people commissioned by Crown Packing owner Christopher Bunn for his demonstration farm was the first project Cerney had worked without the aid of a wall, and he liked it. “The background's all the landscape around it,” he says, and cites other, less aesthetic reasons for loving his giant people: He's not tied to a physical location to work from, and doesn't need to worry about the elements or outside distractions when painting.
Cerney does all of his painting in his studio inside an industrial warehouse in Salinas where he also lives, working 10- or 12-hour days and retiring to a little room in the back when he's done. The space is dominated by a giant scaffolding where he does his work, in pieces (applying a grid system to the initial drawn sketches based on photographs). He cuts plywood to size with a jigsaw, paints each piece independently, and never sees the whole until he assembles it at the site. A giant person can take him 10 days; a bigger plywood mural of a historic cattle drive like the one he's currently working on for the South Lake Tahoe tourism board will take a few months.
In all, Cerney estimates that he's done about 300 murals and plywood cutouts in his career, sometimes assisted by fellow artist Dong Sun-Kim. None of his portraits are absolutely realistic or even “good” in the sense of fine art — viewed from a passing car they seem to achieve photorealism, but up close you realize that their features are a little cartoonish, the sense of proportion in their limbs and faces a little off. There's something comforting in the flaws. It humanizes his subjects and, paradoxically, makes them seem more real. Steinbeck, too, exaggerated his characters to proportions both epic and familiar.
Many of the people Cerney has painted over the past two decades have since retired, moved on, or died, but their images remain in the fields, frozen in time and immortal for as long as the plywood holds up. Cerney estimates that the elements will take care of the murals in 25 or 30 years — he's already done extensive repairs on his initial figures, and for higher-paying gigs he now uses the same extra-strength plywood that the Department of Transportation uses for road signs. “I'll be dead and gone and my things will still be rotting away slowly,” he says, in a bit of grim Steinbeckian naturalism.
After our jaunt around Salinas, Cerney took me to the town graveyard where the author is buried. Steinbeck's simple tombstone was adorned with a few dried flowers, an empty bottle of tequila, and a weathered notebook filled with messages from fans. It's nothing special; you connect with Steinbeck through his stories, with road-weary people crawling down kitschy old Route 66 on their way west. His grave is just another marker in another field. Cerney's murals of the Cannery Row characters in Monterey are more of a monument to the man and his work, just as Cerney's portraits of farm workers planted across the landscape are monuments to the nameless men and women whom you see bent in the fields as you blur by on your way to somewhere else.