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Sharpening Vision of Pig Paradise

Mural: The 30,000-square-foot painting at the Farmer John pork packing plant is getting a much-needed touching up.

July 05, 2000|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scene inside the Farmer John pork packing facility in Vernon is horrific for pigs, which enter the massive building as low-slung swine and leave as Dodger dogs, baked hams and spareribs.

But the scene on the outside of the building is hog heaven.

A 30,000-square-foot mural that surrounds the plant depicts dozens of contented porkers running through long, cool grass, splashing in a gurgling brook and romping in hoof-deep mud puddles.

One happy little piglet is even shown going for a walk along a creek with a barefoot girl.

Though the project will not change the real-life scene inside the West Coast's largest pork packing plant, the kitschy mural is getting a long-needed make-over for only the second time in its 43-year history.

A team of five painters led by veteran artist Philip Slagter of Santa Clarita has begun repainting the massive mural with several new scenes, using more vibrant and durable paints than those used by the two previous artists who made the plant a local landmark.

Slagter has been hired on a yearlong contract to touch up the images that are still intact and to replace those that are peeling and deteriorating. He is not sure how much of the mural will remain in its original form.

The mural--a favorite of tourists and locals alike--was painted in a folk art style. Slagter plans to include more detail and color, but he will retain the original whimsical spirit.

"It will be a whole new mural with the same feel and the same scale and humor," said Slagter, who was recently hired after a Farmer John executive noticed his work on the San Antonio Winery near downtown Los Angeles.

Slagter has begun by painting a new scene along the plant's southern wall on the corner of Soto Street and Vernon Avenue, depicting a group of pigs lounging in the shade of a tree while other hogs are being chased by laughing children and a rambunctious dog.

Slagter says it will take up to six weeks to complete the work on that 12,000-square-foot wall, which was peeling and fading. After that is done, Farmer John officials plan to assign Slagter another section of the mural to touch up or repaint.

Farmer John officials are routinely asked why they decided to decorate the facility with such joyous pig images, considering that more than 6,000 pigs are slaughtered at the plant every day.

The answer, said Tom Clougherty, the firm's director of sports marketing and a cousin of the plant's founders, is simple: "Vernon is fairly drab down here, so we just thought about brightening up the area."

In 1957, the founders of the packing company, Francis and Barney Clougherty, hired Leslie Grimes, a retired professional wrestler from Australia and a scenic artist for Hollywood films, to paint a farm mural on the plant's buildings to go along with the company's icon, a farmer.

It was Grimes, a colorful character himself, who decided to incorporate the frolicking piglets in Vernon's landscape.

(The mural includes a foreboding image near the front entrance of the plant: rows of hams coming out of a smokehouse.)

The Cloughertys liked Grimes' whimsical scenes so much that they hired him to be the plant's permanent artist. Eventually, Grimes covered nearly every building at the 11-acre facility with fanciful farm scenes.

Grimes died in a fall from a scaffold at the Farmer John plant in 1968 and was replaced by Arno Jordan, an Austrian emigre who worked full time maintaining and upgrading the mural until he recently became ill.

The two artists left behind a mural that is so popular that Farmer John has included mural scenes and a history of the artwork on the company Web site (www.farmerjohn.com) and in the Farmer John recipe book (Wiener-stuffed cabbage, anyone?).

Now Farmer John officials plan to offer refrigerator magnets depicting scenes from the bucolic artwork. The magnets will be available soon. Proof of purchase of a Farmer John product is required, of course.

Unfortunately, Grimes and Jordan both relied on common house paint, which has begun to peel and fade. That prompted Farmer John officials to hire Slagter to restore and repaint the mural, using more durable mural paint.

Slagter said he first saw the mural when he was an exhibiting artist in Los Angeles in the early 1980s.

"I thought it was interesting and odd that someone would cover their entire plant with a mural," he said.

Slagter studied the mural closely before he recently painted a 13-foot-long scene on paper for the plant's south wall. He then turned the work over to Alex Garcia, who heads AMG Artists, a firm that specializes in murals and large outdoor signs.

To transfer Slagter's painting onto the 12,000-square-foot wall, Garcia divides the painting into quadrants and uses a special camera to project each quadrant onto sheets of paper about 4 feet long by 3 feet wide.

Garcia then perforates the outlines of the images that are projected onto the paper and places the paper against a wall, which has been sanded and painted white.

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