Artist Profile – Jon Serl

Jon Serl

1894–1993, lived and worked in Southern California

Family Band

Jon Serl / Family Band / c. 1970 Oil paint on board / 48 x 109 in. / Private Collection / Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York

Known as “Slats,” a vaudeville performer ; Jerry Palmer, a voice-over artist for early Hollywood talkies; and Ned Palmer, a migrant fruit picker; Jon Serl lived many lives under a number of names. While he was a two-time television guest of Johnny Carson and a onetime friend to Clark Gable, Hedda Hopper, and Howard Hughes, Serl is best remembered for his work as a painter. Born Joseph Searles in Oleans, New York, he grew up in poverty, drifting out West with his family’s vaudeville show and eventually settling in California. There he pursued a career as a minor actor and well-regarded voice-over artist. Never content with a single personna, he also worked as a screenwriter, dancer, waiter, and cherry-picker when Hollywood grew tiresome. After WWII, he moved to the California desert and established an eccentric presence there as a kind of prophetic flea-market forager, turning to painting in 1949 when he couldn’t afford the fifty-dollar price of a painting to hang in his adobe home. By the 1960s Serl began dressing in a Catholic priest’s robes, taking in runaways, and was heavily involved in gardening, painting, and poetry.

Ranging in subject from everyday scenes to imaginary landscapes, the work reflects his patchwork personality as the consummate performer, often memorializing episodes and characters from his Hollywood days and other travels. Usually painted on found boards, in oils or sometimes in homemade pigments, Serl’s pictures are figurative and narrative. The expressionistic brushwork is easily recognizable. Serl died at age 99 in 1993.

Artist’s Work