By Ray Stern
By New Times
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Size does matter.
Or at least it does to painter John Cerney, creator of the Rushmorean rug rat seen daily by thousands of westward-bound I-10 travelers.
"As long as I've been painting, I've always been interested in making things bigger and bigger," says Cerney, who operates a commercial mural studio in Salinas, California. "The baby was something in the back of my mind I'd been wanting to do for a long time."
The 45-year-old artist finally found a home for his brain child when the owners of Duncan Family Farms happened to pass one of his roadside creations while on a northern California business trip last year. Impressed by the work of someone who was obviously a kindred spirit -- the installation was a whimsical photo-realistic depiction of a country vegetable stand -- the Arizona farmers commissioned Cerney to do his thing to their own kooky spread in Goodyear.
"We didn't want a bunch of wordy signs cluttering up the place, so John was the perfect guy for us," says co-owner Kathleen Duncan. "Bakery. U-Pick-It. Petting Zoo. Why use words when you've got someone like him who can get the message across in pictures?"
But the message was pretty much lost on City of Goodyear officials.
"They didn't know what to make of it," says Kathleen's husband, Arnott. Somehow convinced that the Goliath goo-gooer didn't constitute a billboard, city representatives eventually gave the baby their baffled blessings and went off shaking their heads.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, Cerney went to work. Photographing the farm receptionist's year-old granddaughter from low angles, he finally caught the gurgling tyke in a pose now immortalized as I-10's infant icon. (Like the baby, all of the cutouts scattered around the farm are modeled after the Duncans' family, friends and employees. Kathleen, for instance, is the model for the wunderkind's mom.)
Using a grid system, Cerney and partner Dong Sun Kim then transferred the baby's image onto several large plywood slabs with acrylic paint. After being treated with a protective sealant to guard against fading, weather damage and vandalism, the pieces were then shipped to Goodyear and reassembled with metal struts. Sadly, however, Cerney reports that the baby's life expectancy is probably between three to five years. "Putting something like this out in the desert is a new one on us," explains Cerney. "I've been told the wood will probably go before the paint does."
Although Cerney's other commissions have included giant adults (his studio produced a 20-foot-tall family for an Orange County home developer), he explains that the logistics of creating oversize objets d'art almost demands that he think small before going big.
"If I wanted to paint a 100-foot person, it'd be very difficult to make sure that it was structurally sound," says the artist, who received $3,000 for the giant Duncan baby. "But if you take something that's small to begin -- like a chicken -- you can blow it up 15 feet tall and it'll still have an impact."
While Cerney's work would seem to be a graffiti vandal's dream, the artist claims that with the exception of a few quirky incidents, his cutouts have gone unscathed. In his own hometown, a plywood cop officiating over a fender-bender outside an auto repair shop has been repeatedly abused, although neither of the arguing motorists has ever been touched. ("Might be some kind of revolt against authority," theorizes Cerney.)
And in Goodyear, a weird "which comes first" vandalism scenario, the Duncans' giant hen was once pelted with eggs. The big baby has reportedly gone untouched, although bawdy tourists have been known to use the tableau as a background for risqué photographs. ("I've heard enough," says Kathleen Duncan, after learning that a trucker friend had seen someone kneeling down in front of her character while a friend snapped a picture.) Still, accidents will happen, and Cerney will soon trek to Goodyear to retouch a couple of cutouts wiped out in a drunken-driving incident.
The big artist's biggest influence? Norman Rockwell. And, perhaps, all those atomic sci-fi flicks he watched as a kid.
"Maybe that did have something to do with it," he muses. "When I was a kid, we did have a bomb shelter in our backyard."
And what better place to be after they drop the Big One, and post-nuclear mutant babies and chickens roam the earth?