By MARVA SMITH
Dropping in recently to the “Acrylic and Oil Painting Group,” I had the luxury of eavesdropping on two octogenarians – standing members of Foothills Art Association.
Anticipating the unveiling of this August’s art exhibit dedicated to our senior members, I could not help but romance the idea of taking a historical perspective for generations of La Mesa’s uniquely developed landmark, Porter Hall—named after the former mayor, Edwards W. Porter (1920-24).
Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”
Suddenly, I found myself playing a soundbite of Leonard Cohen’s music (Jan. 2009) in the endearing, official video on my Smartphone, “Dance Me to the End of Love.” The painters tolerated my reverie, listening to the song, while I viewed the music video with the artfully, crafted montage of couples depicted across decades of their lives; and figuratively speaking, wearing their romantic vows “on their sleeves.” One Canadian artist in Thursday’s group, Margaret Priske, happened to impart a piece of trivia, declaring that Leonard Cohen’s life-like image covers a building in Toronto, Canada (As it goes, Canadians obviously romance Leonard Cohen, too.). While Margaret painted a whimsical giraffe, I got to know a little more about her and her style in artistic expression.
Early 20th Century Bronze Sculpture Stole Hearts
With the mindset of civic leaders rounding out early history in La Mesa at the turn-of-the century, there was no shortage of talent in the arts. For the brother of Mayor Porter, being an understudy to the creator of Mt. Rushmore, the memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota—he helped forge a foundation for James Tank Porter’s later works of sculptures in bronze. Working in Stamford, Conn., James Tank had trained in Gutzon Borglum’s studio, as his assistant and he received his education from Pomona College, Claremont, and Beaux Art School at Columbia University.
One such display of a trained eye in representations in humanism was rendered as a tribute to philanthropist, Ellen Browning Scripps. Dedicated in 1926, James Tank’s sculpture represented a kneeling boy fashioned out of bronze; however, after almost seven decades, it lost its luster in 1995, when—just outside of the current Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla—the piece was stolen. Overlooking the pristine coastal route of La Jolla Shores, since then, sightseers took the hit.
Born in Tianjin, China, to parents engaged in medical missionary work there, it is not hard to imagine the Porter family ensconced during political tensions with The Boxer Rebellion, named for the 1900 union uprising, in northeastern China. In her book review: “A battle that made the world see red,” Kim Rosedorph (July 2000: Christian Science Monitor) recounts a detailed record of the union workers’ beliefs that their supernatural powers could thwart Christian missionaries and repel swords and bullets, according to author of The Boxer Rebellion, Diana Preston. In sum, James Tank spent the last 18 years of his life in La Mesa, passing away on May 11, 1934, at his home on El Cajon Boulevard—just seven months shy of his 80th birthday.
Porter Hall’s Artists Still “Dance Me”
Reflecting on our landmark’s own history at Porter Hall, those early turn-of-the-century civic leaders in La Mesa, like James Tank and his brother, Edwards William Porter, rekindled for me a narrative, which is not unlike waltzing away to “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Leonard Cohen’s melodic tribute to life’s enduring aura is only one step removed from reality. Paying close enough attention to hopeless romantics like the ones I have observed in drafting this article, hopefully I have not stepped-on-any-toes. But, instead, my offering of a caress and shouldered touch of rejuvenation comes couched in this richness calling for a glimpse of the locals and bygones past.
Editor’s note: Marva Leigh Smith taught oral communication and wrote a health column for “The Daily Aztec” at San Diego State University.”