Thursday, March 24, 2011

A 21st Century Message in a Bottle

There are days when nothing works, no one returns your phone calls or emails and regardless of how hard you search, you can't seem to find the elusive piece of data you're looking for. On occasion we can fight through these periods and make progress and on other days it is just best to have a glass of wine and surrender for the moment, mentally reconnoitering for the next day's campaign. Once in a while, though, some of the lines we cast out into universe--messages in a bottle, if you will--find their way back to us.

MANY years ago--and I hesitate to say how many years ago, but lets just say it was toward the end of the previous century--I was trying in vain to research an artist whose work hung in one of the bedrooms at Mayowood. We were doing a living history Christmas tour that was intended to give visitors a glimpse into life on the homefront in Rochester, Minnesota ca1944. Dr. Charles W. Mayo, patriarch of the generation of the Mayo family that was living at Mayowood during the war, was stationed with one of the Mayo Clinic hospital units** in New Guinea. There's a lot of interesting art at the house, but there were a couple of portraits of Dr. Mayo that, for whatever reason, I was always drawn to. They were done by an artist named George Porter during the period of 1943-44. Both are watercolors and show the good doctor (and colonel) in his khakis and looking rather thin and a bit weary when compared to his pre-war photographs. There was also another watercolor done by the same Mr. Porter of a tropical scene within the same room.

My curiosity was piqued. First, I'd found a reference to this combat artist, young George Porter, in a piece of V-mail that Dr. Mayo had sent home to the family in Rochester. V-mail was pretty well censored and your time/space was short so you mentioned important things or interesting things--as well as things that would make it past the heavy-handed black pen of the censor! Secondly, the quality of the work was wonderful. I thought the way Porter had managed to capture Dr. Mayo was uncanny. As a portrait sent home to a worried family, it would have conveyed a sense that things were as good as could be expected, but difficult, to be sure, even on the best of days. The enigmatic twinkle that I'd grown accustomed to seeing in Dr. Mayo's eye by way of decades of photographs and portraits was still evident, but slightly dimmed by all he'd no doubt seen during the war. This young artist had captured a side of this famous doctor that I'd not seen from anyone else. I wanted to know more.

Needless to say, back in the mid-90s it wasn't as easy as it is today to find art--or people. We didn't have enough solid information to get anything from the VA or service lists and there were no serious art databases that we knew of at the time that could help. I sent out a few inquiries, all either went unanswered or came back with nothing to report. Once the tours were over for the season I had other work to attend to and the mystery of George Porter would slowly fade to the back of my mind.

Then a few weeks ago I was looking to verify and expand upon some information for some special tours they'll be holding this summer to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the building of Mayowood. Emerging from the fog of my somewhat overcrowded memory, there was George Porter again. I couldn't recall his middle initial, but I figured that with some clever searching I could piece together something that would yield results.

A couple of hours on the laptop, scrolling and scrounging through old issues of YANK (The Army Weekly) and Stars and Stripes among others and there he was, or at least, there his work was. I was staring at a cover image from Yank Down Under magazine dated August 1944, cover credit to George Porter, or Geo Porter as he usually seemed to sign his work. The brush strokes, the evocative shading, the signature I'd looked at so many times, it had to be the George Porter I'd looked for all those years ago. Just as he'd managed to convey so much in the portrait of Dr. Mayo, these boots are stirringly poignant. Ordinary and utilitarian, they bear witness quietly, with dignity.

"The well worn, expressive GI shoes were painted by Sgt. George E. Porter Jr., who is with the 5th Photographic Technical Squadron in New Guinea. Sgt. Porter spent six pre-induction years in New York City doing commercial art work with one of the larger advertising agencies. In addition to this, his paintings in the field of fine arts have been exhibited in the 57th Street Galleries in New York and in Florida. The sergeant didn't say whether his own (or somebody else's) brogans served as the models for this painting." (from the YANK Army Weekly Blog...@

Armed with a middle initial, an army rank and his unit information, I was fairly certain I could make more progress. A quick click over to the website and I was able to see a bit more of Porter's work, all with the same feel to it, the same qualities I'd admired in the works at Mayowood. From the website I learned that he'd passed away more than a decade ago, but that he'd still been alive in the mid-1990s when I'd looked for him. As I looked over his pages on the site I noticed an email from someone who said she was his niece. Well, surely it was worth a try, right? I mean, I'd already come this far, it was obviously worth sending an email out into the vastness of the Internet. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Fast forward to this morning. I've been more than a little pre-occupied obsessed with my inn project so when an email showed up on my BlackBerry this morning with an unfamiliar address, I expected it might be in reference to one of the myriad inquiries I'd sent out. Through the haze of sleep, though, I noticed the subject George E Porter. My eyes opened wider and I reached to grab my glasses to be sure I wasn't seeing things. Then I hesitated a moment...opening the email would confirm that this was another false start, or, it would throw open the window and shed a little light. I'm happy to report it was the latter of the two.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with George E. Porter's niece this afternoon and hearing a little more about this artist to whom I'd felt so inexplicably drawn for so many years. This is not, thankfully, the end of this story, but only the beginning. So stay tuned...

As a research geek, writer, and editor I'm more than happy to spend hours perusing old newspapers in archives or sifting through clippings and photographs in small historical societies and museums. In fact, it's often the best, most rewarding part of my day. And when you can connect a few dots, connect with a relative or family member to help you piece together more of the puzzle, you know you've won the day with the help of fortuosity and a little perseverance.

**Activated in January 1943, the 71st Army General Hospital personnel were commanded by Drs Charles W. Mayo and James T. Priestley II. The two Mayo army hospital units were sent to New Guinea in January 1944. The 233rd station hospital was positioned at Nadzab and the 237th at Finschafen. These hospitals provided the first treatment for casualties evacuated by air from the campaign against Japanese occupation in this area.


Mark Devereux said...

Fascinating stuff! Love reading these kinds of accounts!

The Paper Tyger said...

Thanks, Mark! It was a very cool day filled with unexpected little gifts. Love these rare days!

Girl on the Front Porch said...

you have an interesting take on life and art... well written!

Bill Wynne said...

I you wish please contact me. I was in the 233rd Hospital in New Guinea in 1944 with dengue fever. My tiny dog Smoky found in a foxhole was brought to see me. She appeared in YANK In the JULY14 '44 issue As the Best mascot in the SWPA. Nurses saw rhe dog and asked if they could ask their CO to take her on rounds. Permission granted. The dog was allowed to sleep on my bed for five nightd and nurses and Dr. MAyo took her on rounds to see incoming casualties. From that time Smoky is the first therapy dog of record.( AnimalPlanet research) memoroir of most famous dog of WWII. "YORKIE DOODLE DANDY" Bill Wynne

Larry Stedman said...

My name is Lawrence J Stedman/ Pickett. my grandfather was Col Lawrence J Pickett. My mom just handed down some military memorabilia. one of the items is a watercolor painting of P-47 thunderbolt's in New Guinea. it's signed. & dated 1944.It also was personalized to my grandfather. It is a tropical painting. please contact me for more info. ranchodelux707@gmail. com. thank you!