Posts Tagged ‘potluck’

Photo: Jon Swihart.
Belly dancer performance and artist lecture at a potluck in Santa Monica. (The potluck founders are moving to a state where they will have to remember to call a potluck “hot dish.”)

A sense of community is important to us all. Today’s story is about artists in California using the act of breaking bread together as a way to build bonds and reduce isolation.

“When artists Jon Swihart and Kimberly Merrill move from Santa Monica to Minneapolis … they will be leaving behind both a cherished home and a remarkable artistic and social legacy. Inspired by their friends Mark Ryden and Marion Peck’s recent move out of state, the couple decided it was time for a change. …

“Paying the home’s mortgage for decades solely by working as an artist is something Jon considers one of his greatest accomplishments. Another is the role he played — along with Kim — in hosting 162 potlucks in their verdant backyard, each one featuring artists or other creative producers who spoke about their life and work.

“ ‘Painting can be so isolating,’ Jon notes. ‘So sometime in the late 1980s I started inviting artists over to the house to talk about their work. Word spread quickly and people started asking if they could join us. The potlucks officially launched in 2003 after we became a couple. At Kim’s suggestion we started using the backyard — and supplying plates and plastic cutlery — and things really took off.’ By the time COVID-19 forced Jon and Kim to discontinue them in 2020, the artist potlucks had taken on a life of their own, drawing as many as 200 people at a time from an email list of over 2,500 names. …

“The backyard potlucks followed a consistent formula that worked because so many people stepped up to contribute and help out. Around 6pm on a Saturday night, a long table filled up with potluck delicacies — both store bought and homemade — while a drink table was stocked with wine and beer. Jon and his tech crew would set up for the artist slideshow as Kim greeted visitors in her studio at the back of the house.

“The house itself, although only 1,300 square feet, was one of the attractions. Built in 1927, its tile floors, beamed ceilings, and arched doorways offered a sense of warmth and comfort. On top of that, Jon’s trove of antiques and art objects — which include a painting attributed to Jean-Léon Gérôme that was later authenticated on the show popular British TV show Fake or Fortune — provided sophisticated eye candy.

“Over time an extraordinary variety of artists stood under the lanterns in Jon and Kim’s backyard, discussing not just their work, but also the events and challenges of their lives.

‘I would tell the speakers to avoid art theory,’ Jon recalls, ‘and instead talk about how a passion for art sustained you through disasters and triumphs.’ …

“Every now and then a potluck broke the mold. At one unforgettable event, a group of fire-spitters recruited from the Venice Beach boardwalk performed on the sidewalk in front of the house, stopping traffic and astonishing the neighbors. Another off-the-charts event was art historian Gerald Ackerman’s talk, which was also a celebration of his 80th birthday. 

“As artist F. Scott Hess recalls: ‘Jerry, the world’s foremost authority on Jon’s favorite artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme, was a longtime friend of all of us. That night in Jon’s backyard there were theatrical recreations of Gérôme paintings, with costumes as close to the originals as was possible. And there was a belly dancer as well. Jerry was thrilled with the acting out of Gérôme’s ‘The Duel After the Masquerade,’ with Brian Apthorp as the wounded harlequin taking a good 10 minutes to die.

“To cap off the evening, Jerry was given a Gerald Ackerman Action Figure, in its original box, a creation of Peter Zokosky, with all the extras a topnotch art historian would need.

“The popularity of the potlucks brought innovations. Trekell Art Supplies began sending merchandise for one-dollar-ticket raffles that raised money to support the events. Artists also began to donate prints or small works of art to be included in the raffles. Artist Eric Davis soon began creating buttons that included a logo and event date along with the featured artist’s name and work. … Davis made between 40 and 100 buttons, which were given away for free: a total of over 7,500 in a span of 14 years.

“ ‘They were open events and anyone could come,’ Swihart comments. Art dealers, critics, students, and collectors began to attend, especially after Greg Escalante — a dealer and the founder of Juxtapoz Magazine — talked them up. Thousands of complete strangers streamed through the house. Amazingly, nothing was ever stolen, which gave Jon and Kim a new faith in humanity. …

“During many of the artist talks — held under strands of paper lamps and a glowing moon — there was absolute silence among the audience. The energy was positive, even magical, and artists who might have seemed unapproachable before laid themselves bare. Again and again the talks humanized artists by revealing them as people who had struggled and who, at some point, had been afraid to experiment with their art. 

“One notable speaker — Robert Williams, the legendary underground comic and ‘lowbrow’ artist — told the crowd how the dominance of Abstract Expressionism had inhibited the development of representational art when he was a student. Because Jon and Kim’s potlucks were not sponsored by an organization or institution, contrarian points of view, like those offered by Williams, were respected and even welcomed. … From Swihart’s point of view, having Robert Williams speak at a potluck was ‘like having Eric Clapton stop by to play in my garage band.’ …

“ It was a cauldron for friendships, conversation, networking, alchemy, and artistry,’ recalls Eric Davis. … Artist Peter Zokosky comments: ‘Even at the time, you knew something rare and miraculous was happening. Jon gave a forum to 100-plus artists over the years, and never once did he give a slideshow of his own work.’

“ ‘The potluck was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life,’ Jon states. ‘We had so many artists on our wishlist when COVID shut them down, but it was time to bring it to an end.’ ” 

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

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