Portraits of Agriculture in America’s Salad Bowl

I was driving up Highway 101 from Paso Robles to Monterey Peninsula and started noticing portraits of farmers along the highway–supersized portraits–and I was excited and anxious to look up on my phone the story behind them. Who painted them? What was the inspiration? How does the artist keep them from blowing over in the constant wind that keeps the climate cool for lettuce?


As I turned off Spreckels Road to Highway 68 I saw this painting looming in the dark. I vowed that I’d return on the way home and take a photo. Meanwhile, as soon as I checked into the Lone Oak Lodge, I logged onto the internet and searched for “giant portraits of farmers in Salinas Valley” and discovered artist John Cerney‘s work.

In the artist profile in Monterey County Weekly (Barbara Paris, 5/20/1999) explains “Cerney creates his commissioned scenes by starting with an idea, posing real people–usually employees or friends–as models and taking ‘many, many photos, 50 or 60, to get the right pose,’ which he then transfers to a special plywood covered with a smooth paper finish. Sometimes he paints alone, but often now he is assisted by Dong Sun Kim, a mural painter in Marina… The giant cut-outs are prepared in sections and then joined to form people 18 to 20 feet tall. Cerney likes to do his own installation, setting the cut-outs on 4-by-6 posts set in concrete.”

Larger than life farmworkers off in the distance.

In another profile from SFWeekly (Anna Roth 7/31/2013), Cerney has completed more than 300 murals and plywood cutouts. “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.”


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