WAPAKONETA — When friends of artist John Cerney moved to Cincinnati from California and started learning about the Buckeye State, one day they happened to mention something that clicked with him.
“There’s a little town called Wapakoneta. That’s where Neil Armstrong’s from,” Cerney remembers them saying.
“I do this once a year. I donate a mural to a community,” Cerney said. “My radar is always out for possible ideas for different parts of the country.”
He wrote to the Chamber of Commerce, and the project is coming to fruition with a dedication today. Ceremonies begin at 3 p.m., and Cerney would love to talk about the project with anyone who would like to stop by.
Cerney has been doing large-scale murals like this since 1985, creating perhaps 10 or 15 per year. Most of his works are commission pieces, except for these once-a-year donations.
This is the only Cerney roadside mural in Ohio.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was like, ‘Is this for real?’” said Deb Fischer, president of First on the Moon Inc., a nonprofit that promotes Armstrong history through public programming.
Friends of the community helped vet how special the opportunity is, something she embraces fully now.
“Then I was like, ‘Uh oh, we gotta find a place to put it,” she said, laughing.
Cerney has a few parameters to these projects. He asks that his travel and hotel expenses be paid. (He drove from his home in California.) He needs a helper for the installation. He needs a few building materials sourced locally, and he wants to be involved in site selection.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Here’s a free mural,’” Cerney said. “But I care about where it goes. I don’t want it in the middle of town. What matters to me is the mindset of the driver who sees this thing. It doesn’t have the impact it has unless it’s off by itself. I need that moment of excitement. ‘I didn’t expect that. What’s that all about?’ And they turn around, and they come back and take pictures.
“I’ll take the medium-size highway because there’s more intimacy,” he said. “People will stop and walk up to it.”
Because of the subject matter, Cerney was in close communication with Purdue Research Foundation, which handles licensing. The fact that this was a donation and is meant to honor Armstrong’s legacy helped get their blessing, Cerney said.
Fischer got to work after that May pitch, scouting locations and talking with property owners. She was running into obstacles. Overhead wires were too close, or other things in the area were too distracting.
“We had gone to several locations, and one night I was on the phone with (Cerney) … and I said, I’m just going to mention this property,” she said. She hadn’t approached the owners yet.
He looked at it online, zooming in, and fell in love.
So Fischer set up a coffee chat with Bill Shaw, the owner of Maple Lane Farms, just east of Wapak at 17595 state Route 33. She came prepared with a sheaf of materials.
“I tell you what, within five minutes … he turned my paper around and he said, ‘I’m going to show you right where you can put it, Deb.’”
Shaw, 83, is thrilled at giving the art installation a home for its 10- to 12-year lifespan. His interest is on several levels.
“When she told me what it was all about, I said, of course we would because my wife grew up with Neil Armstrong,” Shaw said. “This great man did this great thing that opened the heavens to mankind. Now we can go to the stars.”
The former Martha Parlett, 86, kept in touch with Armstrong through the years. Her mother and his mother were great friends, Shaw said. Shaw, a native Texan who served in the military all over the world, is happy to have purchased the property that was in his wife’s family in the early ’90s and open the apple orchards for school children tours for much of the 1990s. Those visits weren’t complete until the kids visited the farm’s ice cream parlor.
“You’re not really the owner of a place like this. You’re the caretaker,” Shaw said.
Shaw sees the mural as being an extension of that and is looking forward to chatting with visitors who stop by.
“I will be happy to do this,” Shaw said. “This is a moment in history for people to celebrate and be a part of. … You don’t give back monetarily. You give back in what you do and what you support. I’ll be long gone.
“(The mural) is the stepping stone of history into reminding people of what occurred,” Shaw said. “Cannot even imagine the courage that it took to step on the moon. We have a joke in the military, ‘How would you like to ride the rocket to the moon made by the lowest bidder?’
“This will be a means of reminding any people anywhere in the world who happen to come by here of the greatest that originated in Wapakoneta. We are now part of that history,” Shaw said.
The city rallied together — Lowe’s provided lumber and a worker, and if Cerney needed anything from the store, they’d jump to it. A restaurant provided picnic lunches for Cerney as he worked to assemble the mural. Community groups helped freshen the landscaping at the Shaw property.
This work, which Cerney did over two months on a special kind of plywood, is roughly 25 feet wide by 16 feet tall by 5 feet deep. Armstrong is set apart from the moon to give the look a little bit of depth, Cerney said. There are 270 smaller panels in the moon.
He started this kind of art by painting murals on the sides of barns, which is hard work, the 66-year-old admitted. Now, he prefers to paint in his studio and install the art in place later.
The mural will weather well for about a decade, with Cerney returning for refreshes as need be.
“I do have a sadness,” Cerney said. “It’s consumed me for months now, and when I’m driving away, that’s the saddest part — I may never come back here. … I’ll move on to my next one.
“I love doing the donation things like this because I’m bringing it to a whole new segment of the country,” Cerney said.
Fischer, who is not a Wapakoneta native, was amazed when she learned the history of Maple Lane Farms and how the dots connected.
In addition to the mural, the farm is now home to a rehabbed furniture store called the Apple Barn. It will be open during the dedication today and will stock First on the Moon merchandise in addition to its main focus.
“You’re driving along 33 and you’re out there and see you cornfields and beanfields and you’re on that final stretch where you’re just trying to get to 75 … and you say, ‘What did I just see?’ and you might want to turn around and go back and take a picture with it,” Fischer said.
“I truly believe things happen for a reason. I think good breeds good,” she said. “Maybe it’ll lead to something else in the future. You never know.”