Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Life and Times of Bern Porter

by Sheila Holtz

Bernard Harden Porter, long-time Belfast resident, artist, writer, publisher, and scientist, died Monday June 7, 2004 at Tall Pines Nursing Facility. He was 93.

A well-known local figure and Maine native, Porter traveled widely before settling in Belfast in 1972. From his home at 50 Salmond Street he operated his self-styled "Institute for Advanced Thinking." There he hosted traveling artists and maintained a colorful sculpture garden of multimedia installations and "contemporary artifacts."

Bern was born in Porter Settlement, near Houlton, on February 14, 1911, according to official records, though Bern himself claimed 1910 as his birth date. His parents were Etta (Rogers) and Lewis Porter. He is predeceased by two brothers, Harold and Everett, and a sister, Marion.

After graduating from Colby College, Waterville, Maine, in 1932, Porter pursued a master's degree in atomic physics at Brown University, Providence, RI. He worked in colloidal research on the development of the first black and white graphite television picture tube. In 1940 he was conscripted into civilian service to work in uranium separation on the Manhattan Project.
During the course of his work he made the acquaintance of Robert Oppenheimer, the Project’s director, with whom he was deeply impressed. In laboratories at Oak Ridge, TN, Princeton, and Berkeley, many scientists like Bern unknowingly worked on the top secret military program to create the first atomic bomb. Bern has said, "In Tennessee I supervised barefoot hillbillies who thought they were making radiator fluid." Bern himself did not learn the ultimate result of his labors until he read of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, in The New York Times.

After the nuclear destruction of the Japanese city of Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki, Bern was devastated. He walked out of his job, disillusioned with research physics. Thereafter, he devoted himself primarily to the pursuit of arts and letters. He ran a gallery of contemporary art in Sausalito, California, and BERN PORTER BOOKS, a small publishing company. He was an associate and early publisher of avant garde writers Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and Parker Tyler. With George Leite he published Circle Magazine (1944-1948.) In San Francisco he met Anais Nin as well as Allen Ginsberg and other Bay Area poets of the Beat Generation. In 1946 he was married briefly to a young student, Helen Elaine Hedren.

Porter worked on various engineering and construction projects in Guam, Tasmania, Guatemala, and Alaska before settling in Belfast with his second wife, Margaret (nee Preston,
d. 1975.) He is also predeceased by a third wife, Lula (Bloom.)

Bern was one of the founders of the Mail Art Network, sending visual poetry, letters, one-of-a-kind postcard art and altered images to international correspondents as early as the 1950s. He was associated with the fluxus, neoist, and situationist art movements of the twentieth century. He was known for his seminal contributions to "found" art, performance art, sound poetry, visual poetry, and xerox collage. In addition, Porter maintained an extensive literary career in which he authored or compiled over one hundred books, chapbooks, pamphlets, and broadsides.

His biography, Where to Go, What to Do When You Are Bern Porter, by James Schevill, and a retrospective collection of his prose and poetry, Sounds That Arouse Me, were published by Tilbury House, Gardiner, ME, under the auspices of Mark Melnicove. In later years, Bern's publisher was Roger Jackson, of Ann Arbor Michigan, with whom he produced more than thirty-four titles. A persevering nonagenarian, Bern continued writing and publishing until his last year of life. In October 2003, he moved to Tall Pines, a nursing home and rehabilitation facility a few blocks from his Salmond Street home in Belfast. He received regular visits from friends and admirers until his death, an eventuality that Bern had often euphemistically referred to as “the final final.”

Collections of Bern's books and artworks are archived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, at the University of California at Berkeley, at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and Brown University, RI as well as at Colby, Bowdoin, and Unity Colleges in Maine. Collections can also be seen in the Belfast Public Library and the Museum of the Belfast Historical Society. A vast and unknown number of Bern's signed, limited edition books and original artworks are housed in private collections worldwide.

Bern Porter inspired and mentored many young (and not-so-young) writers, artists and performers. Many of them were frequent or occasional visitors to the Institute – Janelle Viglini, Tamaranda Laeir, Mary Weaver, Amy Flaxman, Carlo Pittore, Phil Nurenberg, Natasha Bernstein, and the late Dan Russell – to name a few. He often advised, "Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, dear, and confront the page!" Irascible, tyrannical, tender, flamboyant, outrageous, circumspect, abstruse, enigmatic, humorous, probing, and incisive, Bern was…and is…UNIQUE. We will not forget him, or his legacy. In fact, we ARE his legacy.

In conclusion, all we can say, Bern, is "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

it's another beautiful day in belfast, dear

This blog was created as a forum for those interested in mail art in general and the mail art, life and times of Bern Porter in particular. Some have called Bern "The Granddaddy of Mail Art." He certainly did live a long, unusual, and productive life. (February 14, 1911-June 7, 2004.)

From 1997 to 2002, I and my alter ego, Natasha Bernstein, published an 8-page xeroxed Weekly Reader-style 'zine called Bern Porter International. In 2004 it was resuscitated, and with the help of new co-editor Jacob Fricke, we have, in the last issue, sent out a call for entries to two Bern Porter tribute projects. See Crag Hill's scorecard for details:

wow. I just did that to see if I could create a hyperlink. Apparently this stuff actually WORKS!
In any case, here is the same information, below. But check him out anyway.

1."R.I.P., Dear"
A Mail Art Tribute Exhibition
send all entries, any size, any medium
Deadline: December 31, 2004 (THIS IS NOT ENTIRELY ENGRAVED IN STONE. Please send)

2.A Bern Porter International Commemorative Issue
Send text or b&w graphics (up to 8-1/2 x 11")
Deadline: November 15, 2004 (THIS IS DEFINITELY NOT ENGRAVED IN STONE. Do send!)

Sheila Holtz & Jacob Fricke
Bern Porter International
PO Box 911
Belfast, ME 04914

Yes. It's true. Bern and I, although several generations apart in age and era, were both born before the invention of computers, and I, like he did, do still harbor a great deal of suspicion about this technology. "Cut and paste" in my vocabulary still evokes an image of scissors and glue! In the past I have, somewhat huffily perhaps, called myself a "luddite." But I am making inroads, and am slowly chipping away at my resistance. Blogging may just be the magic bullet to cure my technophobia, eh? Especially blogging to and with the mail art community, many of whom seem to have slipped below my visual horizon in recent decades.

So, please do send submissions via realmail. Please do post comments here.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

greetings blogfans, mail artists and Bern Porter aficionados

I've found my way to blogging, after much initial resistance... to be continued...