By JILL DIAMOND | La Mesa Courier
Besides being an early home to filmmakers, La Mesa was also the residence of James “Tank” Porter — a nationally recognized sculptor.
Porter, a member of the prominent La Mesa Porter family, worked on a war memorial for the State of Virginia, created a bronze statue in La Jolla, and did a portrait study of John Spreckels at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park during his lifetime.
“Locally, he was very well known and as he was part of the Porter family who had the home on Porter Hill, a city landmark,” said La Mesa historian James Newland. “He was more than an artist, too, since he helped create the planning commission and was a planning commissioner for years. His uncle was the mayor, and his family donated the old La Mesa Library building that is now an art museum.”
Newland said Porter was also known beyond San Diego and La Mesa, and he had an eye for art.
“He was of course creative, as well as forward-thinking and instrumental on how La Mesa should grow properly,” Newland said. “He supported art associations and theater groups and was an arts and culture supporter, but he also had a broader civic responsibility.”
Besides his many art and sculpture projects, Porter was asked to honor San Diego’s great benefactress, Ellen Browning Scripps.
Dedicated on June 14, 1926, the monument has the distinction of being the first free-standing public sculpture in San Diego.
“Suitably modest, the work consists of a bronze figure of a young girl kneeling over a small pool with hands outstretched facing a curved limestone bench. On the back of the bench, Porter carved incised relief figures of children dancing. Placed in front of La Jolla Recreation Center, one of Miss Scripps’ many gifts to the city, the testimonial faced her home across the street,” the archives said.
Missing Porter statue
However, the Porter statue disappeared many years ago, according to Carol Olten, La Jolla Historical Society historian.
La Jolla Historical Society archives state the original sculpture of the kneeling boy child, designed by Porter was stolen the night before June 28, 1995. Efforts to recover it were unsuccessful. Precautions were taken to prevent theft of a new statue by anchoring it securely into the cement.
Olten said the new statue, designed and cast by artist Mary Buckman was dedicated in June 1997 and sits where the Porter statue once sat.
“It was a big deal back then,” Olten said. “During the time there was a rash of similar thefts and statues like Porter’s were believe to be being melted down for their metals.”
Early Porter beginnings
In the book “La Mesa Through the Years” written by the La Mesa Historical Society, Porter left home in 1899 for Beloit College located near Green Bay, Wisconsin. By 1904, he moved to La Mesa with his parents, Henry and Elizabeth Porter and his brother, Chappell, where they lived in the home his parents bought the following year.
For the next five years, James Porter was said to be bedridden because of a football injury while attending college. In 1910, he recovered and enrolled in Pomona College, graduating in 1914.
It was a year later, in 1915, the graduate relocated to New York and attended the Art Students’ League to study drawing and sculpture. Around 1919, Porter helped Gutzon Borglum on the war memorial for the state of Virginia. According to the book, Borglum later became a world-famous artist known for his Mt. Rushmore memorial in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
Porter, too, became a recognized sculptor in the 1920s and is best known for his sculptures that are portrait busts and figures of children like the one once located in La Jolla.
As mentioned, the artist was appointed the first president of the Contemporary Artists of San Diego when it was formed in 1929.
Best known for his bronze work, he also used stone, and throughout Porter’s lifetime his work was exhibited in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and throughout the state of California.
The La Mesa book also states Porter’s work would be “classified as realistic, but many of the pieces were simplified and stylized, some with a strong Art Deco feeling.”
Less art, more city work
By the 1940s, Porter had halted work on his sculptures and during the Great Depression, he utilized his La Mesa foundry to produce bronze sprinkler heads and owned the Browning Manufacturing Co. from 1936 to 1956.
He would marry his future wife, whom he met in La Mesa, Lenore Branam in 1923. They lived in the same house his parents bought in 1905 along with his widowed mother. By 1924, they had their only child, a daughter Anne.
Porter served on the La Mesa Planning Commission for 13 years and died in 1962 at his home at the age of 78.
— Jill Diamond is a freelance writer based in Southern California who enjoys writing about history.