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By Lisa Powell
The four kids strolling down Chenery Street, slurping on orange popsicles, suddenly stop and point over the chain-link fence at 240 Chenery, whispering excitedly. Nailed to a tree in the large front yard is a small wooden box with a glass front. Inside the box is a little cardboard man dressed in red boxing gloves and shorts, dancing back and forth in constant jabbing motion. Atop a tall pillar nearby is a miniature merry-go-round, with hand-crafted figures riding on tiny horses, tigers, and giraffes. A few feet away, sitting on its own pedestal, is the head of a giant fortune teller with a turquoise and yellow turban and a bushy goatee. Next to that, the hand-painted faces of Custer and Sitting Bull stare out from a replica of a slot machine, from the "Little Bighorn Casino." A windmill above a bust of Crazy Horse spins merrily in the middle of the yard.
Who created the boxer-in-the-box, the merry-go-round, and the fortune teller? The artist and carnival master is 81-year-old homeowner Ernie Solon. A retired sign painter, Solon and his wife Betty have lived on Noe Valley's southern outskirts--in the Fairmount neighborhood--for 48 years. For the last seven, Solon has been displaying his whimsical artwork to entertain the neighborhood kids and random passersby. "I wanted to get people to stop, to pause from their daily grind to give them a few moments of pause, a chuckle," Solon says. He is nearly always smiling himself, light brown eyes twinkling underneath a baseball cap that hides a thick crop of shaggy gray hair.
Solon first tried his hand at making sculptures from recycled materials in the 1970s, at the Emeryville mudflats on the shoreline of San Francisco Bay. In those days, anyone who felt so inspired could create public art on the beach from found objects like driftwood, dunnage from ships, and stray pieces of metal. Solon made a metal airplane and later a statue of Don Quixote--"a man on a horse with a stick"--also shaped out of metal.
From Helmets to Signs
Solon has always been artistic. As a kid growing up in Taos, New Mexico, he scribbled in the margins of his textbooks, drawing helmets, shields, and Civil War figures. He experimented with oil paints, creating portraits for friends and family members. He pursued art for fun, but his ambition as a youth was to travel the world. So he joined the Merchant Marine at 17, and from 1943 to 1946 traveled the globe, stopping in ports for three to four days at a time, to pick up and deliver cargo.
At the end of World War II, Solon moved to San Francisco. He settled in North Beach, where he hung out with the likes of Jack Kerouac at Vesuvio's, the Condor, and the Place. He took up sign painting to pay the bills, he says, teaming up with a veteran sign painter, buying into the partnership and apprenticing to learn the trade. Back then, everything was done by hand, including the giant billboards. "We'd get up on walls 50 to 60 feet in the air," Solon says.
He remained active as a merchant marine as well, shipping out to an exotic port every once in a while when he got bored, then returning home to San Francisco. From 1950 to 1952, he was stationed in Korea, this time serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
Solon and Betty met and fell in love in 1958, and within a few months had tied the knot. They bought the house on Chenery a year later, and it's where they've raised their three kids, Brooks, Frederica, and Domingo, who all attended James Lick and Fairmount schools.
"Going to Betty's Market"
When the sign business was slow, Solon launched other ventures to support his family. In 1965, he and Betty opened a little grocery at the corner of Chenery and Randall streets, two blocks from their house, named Betty's Market. Solon handpainted beautiful signs for the shop and set up a roulette wheel that he called the "Wheel of Fortune" at the front register. Anyone who wandered in could spin the wheel for a chance to win a prize--a candy bar or a lollipop. Solon stenciled the sidewalks near his store--for a block in each direction--with a trail of footprints and the words "Going to Betty's Market!"
"I added my own personality to it," he laughs.
At one point, Solon did some sign work for Playland at the Beach, the famed amusement park that stood for half a century near the Cliff House. Places like Playland, he says, and carnivals and circuses, always thrilled and inspired him. "I loved the vivid colors, the reds, the yellows." And he enjoyed making posters for the concessions. "It's gotta be gaudy to attract the eye," he says.
The work in his yard is no different. It is flashy, bright, spinning, and whirling. Often one object is piled on top of another to create a huge, 7-foot figure. And many of the sculptures have Indian motifs, reflecting Solon's Native American heritage. "It makes me happy to do this," he says.
VCR Parts and Whirlybirds
A "green" artist if there ever was one, Solon uses materials he finds on the street or at the scrapyard: old planks of wood, bricks, recycled VCR parts, even propellers (he calls them "whirlybirds"). The paint on his sculptures is the same kind he uses on his signs and billboards--industrial-strength so it can withstand the weather. His merry-go-round, which he made in 2000 and titled "Betty's Flower Fair," has survived more than one windstorm. "It was bent, but not broken," Solon says, and he patched it back into shape.
A particular sculpture can take weeks or months to make, depending on the complexity of the piece. Solon often gets ideas while riding on his stationary exercise bike in his garage work space. "I just stare and stare at something and see what I could do with it. If you stare long enough, something happens."
Solon has sold several of his pieces to art collectors over the years. Some of his latest creations are moving figures in glass coffee jars: belly dancers, a surfer, even Barry Bonds hitting a baseball. Each handmade figure has a magnet attached to its back that makes it dance back and forth in its glass case.
He says a future project might be a giant music box with a crank handle that passersby could turn to generate a little music in their day. He also is dreaming up a way to create a replica of the solar system, with sun-powered LEDs that light up when you press a button. "Press a button and see the universe!"
Solon says his path in life wasn't planned, that he's always gone with the flow of things. He tells those who wander past his funhouse: "Be like a cork in the ocean." Then he adds, "I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up."
To get a tour of his front-yard gallery, contact Ernie Solon at 282-4908.