John Cerney had coffee with James Dean this morning. No matter that Dean’s been deceased since 1955.
Blackwell’s Corner General Store and the Shell station on Highway 46 near Lost Hills, in Central California’s Kern County, share two of Cerney’s over-sized painted images of Dean in all his iconic glory. One painting is a headshot, with Dean’s eyes squinting, unsure of what’s next; the other is a full-body image of a cocky wiseass. This is the last place anyone saw Dean alive in his Porsche Spyder before his fatal accident en route to Salinas for an auto race.
The closeup of Dean contains dozens of painted tiles; the full-body image at the opposite end of the parking lot is a more traditional Cerney work—four or five large puzzle pieces assembled together and painted in stunning Technicolor, almost like an advertisement for a movie. Cerney, whose studio is in Salinas, has watched Dean’s three credited films numerous times.
“Because I’m self-employed, I’m by myself most of the time,” says Cerney, 67. “Sometimes, I’ve got to leave the shop to go see a movie. Then I’m connecting with people in the audience.”
Cerney loves the road. His black Dodge Ram pulls a trailer containing the disembodied artwork and carpentry tools needed to put his oversized images together. He blasts the Phlash Phelps program on SiriusXM and intermittently pulls to the side of the road to return work calls, answer e-mails and check his Instagram page.
He departed Salinas late and is well behind two couples: construction right-arm Phil Catalano and his wife, videographer Carol; and utility player Ken Bonano and his wife, Amy, a nurse. He’s meeting them in Palm Springs for his latest installation.
“Popsicles is a grouping of five popsicles—lemon, rainbow, raspberry, strawberry, creamsicle—closely packed together, held by a Black child, a Latina, and three Caucasians,” says Cerney. “The three in the back row are 12 feet tall, and the two in the front row are 10 feet tall. My initial inspiration came from a small book an artist friend gave me on French artist Maurice de Vlaminck (early 1900s). His work was bold and colorful. I was inspired by the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud, who in his early work painted cupcakes and colorful confections. Also, by the outdoor installation near Las Vegas called Seven Magic Mountains by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone.”
Popsicles will become one of Cerney’s smaller installations. There have been 18-foot-tall farmworkers in the fields along Highway 68 between Salinas and Carmel; an entire side of a barn comprising 1,100 painted plywood panels paying tribute to farmers Pisoni and Breschini in Gonzales, Calif.; a lit-up flying saucer (that has landed) and its inhabitants being greeted by a local family alongside Highway 285 south of Roswell, N.M.; George Harrison entertaining three fans roadside in Benton, Ill.; Amelia Earhart and her airplane in Atchison, Kan.; an oversized toddler playing with fearsome creatures on Interstate 94 east of Miles City, Mont.; a gigantic Neil Armstrong, beside his orbiter and the moon, in Wapakoneta, Ohio; and Cerney’s sprawling tribute to the James Dean/Elizabeth Taylor/Rock Hudson film Giant alongside Highway 90 west of Marfa, Texas. Cerney’s works are in 25 states and Canada.
Carney’s road to making art was long and twisted. Finishing 270th out of 350 high school graduates, Cerney went to work in the produce business. He rose up the ranks from forklift driver to loader to office worker and was making more money than his college-graduate friends. He spent eight years working in Brawley and El Centro in the winter, and Salinas in the spring, having no steady relationships, and watching his co-workers cheat on their wives with frequent jaunts to Mexican whorehouses. (Cerney says he visited one once, paying $7). He then decided to pull the plug.
Cerney had started to do small drawings on the side that he sold as gifts for a couple hundred dollars. He took art classes at Cal State Long Beach, graduated, and tracked down his new favorite artist, renowned photorealist D.J. Hall. (Cerney, at first, incorrectly thought Hall was male.)
“Meeting D.J. Hall probably gave me my biggest push,” says Cerney. “She drew like an angel. I had to connect with her somehow. She gave me a couple of early gigs she didn’t want any part of, and they were the start of my career.”
After Hall passed along a $1,000 commission for a drawing from a Scarecrow and Mrs. King television writer, Cerney quit the produce business and moved to Los Angeles. He ended up being the house-sitter for Hall and her husband, architect Toby Watson.
Cerney is late for a group dinner at Blue Coyote Grill. The two couples have checked into Alcazar. Cerney has chosen the Motel 6 on South Palm Canyon Drive. This motel is deluxe compared to some establishments he’s stayed at. One in New Mexico comes to mind: It featured exposed electrical wiring, and, in the shower, scrawled in Magic Marker, COLD and HOT.
This motel is perfect, because there’s plenty of parking for his truck and trailer, and the installation site is a just block away, at 605 E. Sunny Dunes Road. Cerney has already checked out the vacant lot by the time publicist Janet Spiegel picks him up.
Pitchers of margaritas are served. Everyone imbibes but Spiegel, who is celebrating 30 years of sobriety. Phil and Carol and Ken and Amy were neighbors for years. Cerney and Phil grew up across the street from each other. Cats, dogs, COVID-19, travel and injuries are discussed.
Cerney and Phil figure that Popsicles will be their 10th installation together: Cerney directs, and Phil is his loyal first assistant. They were all at the Marfa, Texas, Giant installation, which was a four-day marathon. Former Monkee Mike Nesmith participated musically and financially.
The drinks and Mexican food are devoured as Cerney takes it in. He works hard at presenting a roadside ode to the Burma Shave advertisements from the ’20s and ’30s. He’s honest. He’s corny.
He picks up the check.
It’s 6:30 a.m., and there’s already a line at Townie, the bagel, pastry and coffee establishment diagonally across the street from the vacant lot where Cerney awaits a delivery of wood and cement. The lot has a “for sale” sign near the street and a lot of refuse—bottles, cups, newspapers. The location is not the usual type of site for a Cerney installation. He prefers highways, roadsides.
“I never really felt the need that my work should be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and command huge prices,” says Cerney. “The generic, public-art thing became central to my thinking. There’s a place for my giant cutout pieces in society. I almost created a new art form, in a way, of highway art, for the person in their car driving around on the highway that may not have gotten to an art museum in 10 years—and wasn’t planning on it.”
The owners, workers and patrons at Townie, the Tool Shed, the nearby antiques outlets and Kennard’s Automotive are interested. Some approach Cerney to ask what’s going on.
“Popsicles. For those 120 degree days.”
The building-supply company’s Bobcat delivers pallets of pressure-treated 4-by-6 and 6-by-6 posts, as well as numerous 60-pound bags of cement. The posts will be buried in the ground, supporting horizontal 2-by-6 boards which will be attached to 15 pieces of painted 3/4-inch MDO plywood—three sections per popsicle. Cerney uses Nova Color acrylic paint, a standard in the mural industry, and the pieces are varnished with three coats of anti-graffiti glossy varnish.
The artwork stands ready in the trailer as Cerney, Phil and Ken unload the truck: bags of painted nails, screws, Makita electric drills, an electric power saw, a handsaw, shovels, hammers, scaffolding and a Honda EU2000i generator. Carol sets up a Canon camera and a smart phone on tripods to record the construction. Amy starts to clear the lot of garbage.
It’s an overcast late-March day. Temperatures today will be in the 70s, tomorrow the 80s. Cerney constantly checks his notes attached to a clipboard like a director consulting a script. He’s Hitchcock in the art world: The project has already been conceptualized, measured, cut and painted. Today, the pieces of the puzzle will come together for the first time, like viewing a movie print after months of writing, casting, filming and editing.
The back row of popsicles goes up first. Bill, co-owner of Townie, pays a visit. He is honored that the installation is angled toward his bagel shop. “It’ll be tagged,” he says before heading back to work.
Cerney’s artwork has been ripped from posts, lit on fire and spray-painted. In one case, a painted cutout penis was added to a 16-foot-tall male fieldworker.
The back row of three popsicles—lemon, rainbow, raspberry—is up. A small crowd gathers. An older woman asks whether an ice cream shop is going in. A patron of the Tool Shed enthusiastically yells, “I want to lick it!” Selfies are already mandatory.
Russell Pritchard, a Palm Springs Public Arts commissioner—with a leg in a cast due to a tennis injury—gingerly walks to the site. Cerney greets him, and they go over the events of the past month.
What started as public art evolved into conversations between Pritchard and the Planning Division regarding detailed drawings, building permits, licensed contractors, lumber size, use of concrete, contacting the utility companies to check the mural site for water, gas, or electrical lines, etc. Pritchard waded through the installation kerfuffle with the city and told Cerney, “Proceed with our agreed-upon installation date, and we’ll deal with the city.”
Phil stops driving nails for a moment and shakes his head. “It’s all these Democrats in California. … This would never happen in Texas!”
“Popsicles is on private property,” says Cerney. “Anything a private property owner does to his land has to be approved by city engineers. Popsicles is being treated like a shed. … It has to be structurally sound.”
One of Cerney’s art heroes was the late Christo, whose battles and negotiations with government agencies are legendary.
Pritchard is also documenting the Cerney in progress.
“Our goal is to get art in every neighborhood in town, and Sunny Dunes in particular is a street I’ve been wanting to do for the last year, to help support the merchants who are here, and make it look more lively,” Pritchard says. “We have put money in the pockets of approximately 65 local artists in this past year.”
A standard Cerney piece would cost between $15,000 and $20,000 and appear roadside; Popsicles—a temporary installation through 2021, on private property on a public street—serves Cerney’s vision of the piece standing in a desert community. The Palm Springs Public Arts Commission is covering $3,500 in expenses.
Christo is cracking a smile in heaven, where he has covered the Pearly Gates in fabric.
The bottom row of two popsicles is intact. Although it’s only 75 degrees, a beer would be lovely right about now.
Cerney checks each popsicle, front and back, consulting his sketches and diagrams on his clipboard. He seems content. His team celebrates with elbow taps, and the small group observing the construction breaks into applause. Another installation is in the ground.
“Those are my babies,” says Cerney, eyeing each piece and removing small rocks near the posts. “Each one, I devote 100 percent to when I’m working on it. Not being a gallery artist, I can guarantee eyes on my work. Whether I made enough money to be rich, I never cared about that. I probably spend 60, 65 hours a week working. On Saturday night, it’s 9 o’clock, and I’m still painting. My social life revolves around a lot of friends.”
Spectators are snapping selfies, unaware that they’re standing next to the creator, designer, artist and carpenter responsible for their temporary delight.
Phil is tired, sweaty and bleeding. A 6-by-6 post ripped through his T-shirt, peeling away the top layer of skin. All in a day’s work. He stands next to Cerney. “Popsicles have the power to unite the world!”
The workers and observers laugh and applaud.
Cerney and his gang of five have cleaned up and are enjoying a cocktail at Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge while awaiting the guests of honor: Cerney’s mentor, D.J. Hall, and her husband, Toby Watson.
Cerney is distant. He is pleased with the installation, but he’s already moved on to the next job, an oversized female fieldworker to be mounted at the Monterey, Calif., airport terminal. He had to hustle work during 2020, but 2021 is coming together nicely.
“D.J. Hall was on top of the art world when I met her,” says Cerney. “She feels frightened by being no longer relevant. Her talent is still there, and she’s the best painter I’ve ever seen, but sometimes that doesn’t matter.”
D.J. and Toby arrive, but hugs and handshakes are a thing of the past. D.J. launches into a nerves-driven monologue on the current art world: “A dirty bed with used condoms, needles and bottles of booze on it. That’s art?”
As the group scans the eclectic menu, Phil, who used to be an accountant for a fishery, says, “Don’t order swordfish. They have tumors, and they’re treated like bottom feeders.” Cerney orders the carne asada.
D.J. asks the table about the COVID year. The couples are closer, talking about missing family visits and live events, and the fact that animals inhabiting the world are better off. Most of the table is happy with the new president. Toby speaks quietly to his end of the table.
Janet asks for Eight4Nine owner Willie Rhine to drop by when he has a moment. Cerney and D.J. share two orders of the toffee marshmallow dessert. Another bottle of pinot noir is ordered. New friends have been made.
It’s 6:30 a.m., and Cerney is at work, touching up a few places on the popsicles, painting over exposed nails and screws. The lifespan of Popsicles is roughly 10-12 years, but the exposure to extreme heat may take a toll.
Cerney is pleased that the sun hits the installation from the front for at least half a day. The rich, deep colors make a bright, bold statement: They sell everyone’s love of something cool on a hot day.
A few Townie customers approach Cerney with questions and ask for photo ops. The Catalanos and Bonanos pull up. Amy produces two boxes of popsicles from Ralph’s while Carol sets up her cameras for a self-portrait group shot.
“After art school, in Salinas, I painted a fake garage scene called Tony’s Friendly Auto Service on the side of a barn. That got me a lot of attention,” says Cerney. “Then I painted a mural called Enjoy the Game, a fake baseball scene, like Wrigley Field in Chicago, on the side of a barn on Highway 101, north of Salinas. I sold four billboard spots to support the painting of the mural—and got into trouble with Caltrans for putting up my own billboards. I had to repay $20,000. I was the sad-sack artist, Caltrans bust.
“But produce companies started paying me to do generic ads on the mural, and friends paid me $100 each to be represented in the ballpark stands. I repaid my clients and got a lot of commissions from it. Twelve years later, I renovated it, but this time, I removed five boards at a time, brought them to my shop, repainted them, then screwed them back in at the site. I learned more about longevity and better preservation methods. It will last for several more decades.”
The workers/friends break up before heading back to Salinas. Cerney pays a visit to D.J. and Toby, ensconced in their new home above the Coachella Valley, where they enjoy blueberry muffins and coffee over art talk.
Cerney won’t arrive back at his industrial-park studio in Salinas until well after dark. He listens to the 60s on 6 channel on Sirius XM along the way. By Blackwell’s Corner near Lost Hills, Cerney is too tired to stop and see his ol’ buddy James Dean.
He’ll catch up with the actor the next time he hits the road for an installation.
Robert Crane is the co-author of My Life as a Mankiewicz; SCTV: Behind the Scenes; Jack Nicholson: The Early Years; Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder; and Hollywood Plateau. He contributed to Playboy magazine for 20 years, and his writing has been publications including the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, USA Today and HWY 111. Crane contributed a short story to Beyond Where the Buses Run, a collection from Oregon Greystone Press due in 2022. He lives in Los Angeles.