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."


Blogger Christian said...

Hey Sheila.

Do you personally have any documentation that Bern was involved in the Manhattan Project?
My research in the 80s was that he was never involved.

February 12, 2010 at 9:58 PM  

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