SANTA MONICA — When artists Jon Swihart and Kimberly Merrill move from Santa Monica to Minneapolis later this summer 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. For Kim, the move will be a return home: she was born and raised in Minnesota and has been away for 34 years. Jon, who grew up in their two-bedroom, one-bath Mediterranean-style house and bought out his brother’s shares when his father passed away, is a lifelong Californian. 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. 

When the sale of the house was announced on Jon’s Instagram, tributes poured in. “Such great memories there!” commented artist Natalia Fabia. Robert Boström added, “Thank you Jon and Kim for all the years you hosted amazing events with interesting artists and visitors. You enriched so many lives through your generosity.” And from Sam Woodfin: “There’s a brass plate that needs to be mounted, decrying the historicity of that house!” Although no plaque is planned, Jon and Kim will be taking a framed certificate of appreciation from the California State Assembly. “I always figured someday I’d hear from the City of Santa Monica to close down the potlucks because they were a nuisance,” Jon recalls, “but when I received a notice to appear I was given this!”

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.

Julie Heffernan speaks at the backyard potluck

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.” Among the 162 speakers were fine artists (Dan McCleary, Jeremy Lipking, Adonna Khare, and Lita Albuquerque), sculptors (John Frame), art historians (Gerald Ackerman), cartoonists (Gary Baseman), glass artists (Matthew “Banjo” Stroven), and film directors (Jorge R. Gutierrez).

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.

Potluck buttons by Eric Davis

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. For each potluck, beginning with #34 (Enzia Farrell) all the way to the final potluck, #162 (Vicky Jenson), 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. Kim used to leave her grandfather’s gold watch out until a visitor advised her, “You really should put that away.” 

The dining room of Jon and Kim’s Santa Monica home

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. “Jon is very well educated,” Williams explains. “He understands the neglect that artists with manual skills have experienced and his soirees filled a gap that needed filling.” 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.” 

The Death of Pierrot (Brian Apthorp) at Gerald Ackerman’s talk

People who attended were introduced to new friends, new artists, and new ideas. Two couples who met at the potluck later married. “It was a cauldron for friendships, conversation, networking, alchemy, and artistry,” recalls Eric Davis. “Jon and Kim were in the right place at the right time and were consistently incredibly generous in sharing their home and their support,” says John Frame. “They made a  meaningful difference in many of our lives.” 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.” Jon and Kim both hope to come back to California each year to attend art fairs and visit friends. Because of the legacy of their backyard potlucks, no doubt many friends will be awaiting their visits. 

Gerald Ackerman action figure by Peter Zokosky

John Seed is a professor emeritus of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California. He is also the author of Disrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World (2019) and More...