A Colby College alumnus and Maine native, Bern Porter (1911–2004) began his career as a scientific researcher, but his most enduring source of creative inspiration was American mass culture after World War II. Trained in physics, Porter worked on the development of the cathode-ray tube and subsequently joined the Manhattan Project, the American research team charged with assembling the first atomic bomb. Disillusioned by the great destruction wrought by this unleashed force and motivated to make art out of the printed matter (newspaper circulars, magazine advertisements, and sweepstakes mailers) that arrived in his mailbox, or that he discovered in trashcans, Porter walked away from applied science to dedicate his life to the creation of “founds,” visual poems constructed out of cut, pasted, and torn papers. One of these works displays the appropriated phrase “Listen to this page,” capturing Porter’s indefatigable ability to ascertain the marvelous in the mundane.
Organized in conjunction with the exhibition Terry Winters: Printed Matters, Listen to this page. Works by Bern Porter from Colby College Special Collections includes a selection of the original collages that the artist published in the irreverent compilations The Book of Do’s and Here Come’s Everybody’s Don’t Book. It also features several of Porter’s uniquely prescient artist’s books, one of which, 468B (1966), consists of bound computer printouts of codes that he provocatively suggested could be deciphered for their “psycho-visual” potential. Porter composed two other books, both dated 1961 and titled Aphasia (or the loss of ability to understand or express speech), from bound newsprint whose textual and visual densities presaged the content overload that is now commonly associated with Internet culture. The artist’s book Scandinavian Summer and a travel scrapbook represent Porter’s lifelong fascination with international travel, much of it aboard cruise ships. Additional publications and a selection of the artist’s writings are also available for visitors to peruse.
Initiated following Winters’s inclusion of Porter’s work in the group exhibition Roving Signs in 2013, Listen to this page highlights the extensive holdings of Porter’s papers and related works by the Special Collections at Colby College. For information on this collection, go to The Bern Porter Collection of Contemporary Letters, housed in Colby’s Special Collections. Other collections of Porter materials can be found at Bowdoin College, The Museum of Modern Art, and UCLA. In addition, Mark Melnicove, poet, writer, and literary executor of the Porter Estate, maintains a comprehensive and evolving website dedicated to Porter’s life, art, and collaborations. Special events organized in conjunction with the exhibition include a noontime talk on March 31, a found poetry workshop on March 14, and a Community Day celebration on April 11.