Tribute: Debra Porch

In Issue 47, Ian Were writes a tribute piece about the contagious incandescence and vitality of his late partner, artist Debra Porch (1954–2017).

It was in the mild, northern winter of 1981 that I first met Debra Porch at San Diego State University. I’d arrived in January to teach the spring semester in the enamel studio of the university’s art department. Debra had completed her Master of Arts there a few years earlier (in drawing and printmaking) and had remained friends with several students, including Christina who was the lab assistant in the workshop where I spent that semester.

At the time Debra was living in Los Angeles (LA) and working at First Impressions, an all-women workshop led by Georgia Bragg producing limited edition prints for artists. Late that summer Debra took me to a Bruce Springsteen concert at the LA Sports Arena, to Dudley Moore playing Gershwin at the Hollywood Bowl, and to a support party for Gore Vidal (who was running for the US Senate at the time). Over 1981 and 1982 we went to numerous exhibitions and events; at one gallery, Debra came across Ed Ruscha behind the bar serving drinks at his own opening.

If a mutual appreciation of Springsteen had drawn us together, it was the power of contemporary visual art that kept us there; that and music and dance. Debra had an eclectic taste in music which included Laura Nero, Philip Glass, classical, and the operatic voice (especially Maria Callas), but it was jazz that enthralled her most – particularly the improvisational piano of Keith Jarrett as well as George Winston.

At Thanksgiving that first year, Debra introduced me to her family who lived in Bonita, a suburb of San Diego: her parents Marty and Harold Jones, her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Mikalian and brothers Hal and Jeff. Debra had grown up in the Armenian community of Waukegan, part of greater Chicago and, in 1968, when she was fourteen, the family moved to Southern California.

Debra was not a tall woman, Marty was somewhat shorter, Elizabeth shorter again. What these Armenian women lacked in stature they exceeded in spirit. Elizabeth had been a twelve-year-old in Anatolia when the Armenian catastrophe (as it was then called, later genocide) began in April 1915. Against all odds, and after witnessing the murder of her sister and other family members, she escaped to Syria where Debra’s Armenian grandfather, Abraham, subsequently found her in an orphanage, eventually taking her to a new life in America. Like most American-Armenian diaspora families, the dark times were rarely spoken of. This was Debra’s family’s formidable heritage, something that increasingly permeated her art. To my shame I knew little of these events.

By late 1983 I had returned to Adelaide and Debra decided to join me. It was no surprise that she quickly found new friends in the art and restaurant world, people I didn’t know, or vaguely knew. Soon she was both involved in art projects and waiting tables at Brian Croser’s new Bridgewater Mill in the Adelaide Hills.

Early on Debra joined a key art group, South Australian Workshop (SAW). Her art flourished there and she loved the artist-camaraderie of it all. In 1985 SAW members exhibited The Table, a mixed media artwork, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and over the mid to late-1980s Debra was part of five exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, two at the Experimental Art Foundation, and she also exhibited solo at the Women’s Art Movement and Adelaide Festival Centre foyer.

In Adelaide Debra saw two memorable festivals – 1984 and 1986 – and she took to various events with gusto. The 1986 festival was a feast for her: The Netherlands Dance Theatre, Jan Fabre and particularly the Americans Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and the New York Wooster Group with Spalding Gray. Debra met and danced with Gray and, at a PR event chatted with Glass (who she’d seen perform in LA a couple of years earlier).

Debra was disarming, had equanimity, treated everyone equally; fame or station were of little consequence, these were just other people to have fun with.

By mid-1987 we had moved to Sydney and, by 1989, Debra had begun lecturing in art at Western Sydney University, her first real teaching job. Fortuitously, it was an innovative and adventurous art school with a dauntless group of artist-lecturers and equally vital students, many of whom went on to substantial art careers.

Debra ‘shared so much wisdom and so much verve; she inspired and challenged so many’, says Paul White. Among other artists in this group were Justine Williams, Raquel Ormella, Tony Schwensen and George Tillianakis.

Debra loved to travel. Our first real trip was across the US border down Baja and to Mexico in the summer of 1982 but it was her art travel, her teaching and working residencies in Thailand, Vietnam, Armenia, Paris, and in Australia, that were so important to her art and life. Chiang Mai University was her first (in 1993) followed a little later at Silpakorn University in Bangkok. One of the Thai lecturers, Vichoke Mukdamanee, told us early on that Debra had a Thai nickname (they all did). Hers was ‘Hear first, then see’. Debra’s laugh and voice were big and infectious. She could infuse and change a room in a minute; in Australia, in Asia, in a classroom, anywhere.

Many of Debra’s Sydney exhibitions, or projects organised by her, were associated with her Asian residencies including ‘Secrets = Stories’ at Performance Space (1997), ‘9 Lives’ at Casula Powerhouse (1999), ‘Magenta Footprints’ (1999), and ‘Angels and Creeps’ (2003) — both at 4A Centre of Contemporary Asian Art.

In late 2002 we moved to Brisbane and Debra promptly began a PhD at Queensland University of Technology. From 2006 (until 2016) she was an Associate Professor at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. During this time Debra continued to exhibit installation art predominately based on her PhD thesis The Visible and the Invisible: Connecting Presence and Absence through Art, Mortality and the Body. Two such exhibitions using everyday objects and visual material in installation settings — to prompt awareness of invisible threads — were ‘Quivering’ (2004) and ‘Humming’ (2006), both at QUT Art Museum.

This work, thinking and research inevitably led to her family’s homeland, Armenia, and in late 2009 we went on an exploratory visit to its capital, Yerevan. One two-month and a three-month residency followed, in 2010 and 2012, at the Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory in Yerevan. These experiences were revelationary for Debra, resulting in several exhibition projects including ‘A View of the Horizon’ at Mkhitar Sebastatsi Art Complex, Yerevan (2010), ‘Regards to the Family’ at Canberra Contemporary Art Space (2011), and the video work ‘Invisible conversations: 18 stories’, at Queensland Centre for Photography (2013).

Drawing remained a basis of all of Debra’s practice, whether her earlier works on paper, printmaking, collage or object installation. She frequently made reference to artists such as Annette Messager, Louise Bourgeois, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Doris Salcedo and Teresa Margolles. Hers was not the art of the spectacle but of the more intricate, fragile and thoughtful; of both beauty and unloveliness. And much of it was ephemeral.

Her final solo installation was at Gallerysmith, Melbourne in late 2017, with 100 metal pins attached to two walls of the gallery with a myriad of threads hanging. Jose Da Silva announced the work as ‘barely perceptible, reminding us that the body remains defenceless, open to the slightest injury. Debra was one of Australia’s finest installation artists – even though her practice often remained overlooked.’

Debra had a fearlessness with, and empathy for, most people in general, and for art colleagues and students in particular. Scores of people that Debra mentored have made comments, such as Kim Demuth. ‘She had an enormous effect on my life as an artist/human. She gave me confidence when I had none.’

Debra spent her time giving, ‘giving to friends, to students, giving to art and the art community, everywhere from America to Adelaide to Sydney and Brisbane’, says Graham Marchant. It was after all her generosity in all areas of her life that deeply touched so many of us.

And this from her confidant, fellow lecturer and artist, Donal Fitzpatrick, (I cannot think of it as an exaggeration): Debra was an ‘incandescent person who lived an amazing life beyond the human capacity of measurement … and we were the luckiest of beings to have been there in the glow of her smile.’ And for now the poignant presence of absence.

Ian Were was Debra Porch’s partner and lover of thirty-six years.
This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 47, 2019

Debra Porch: Art Should Make Life More Interesting Than Art
21 June to 7 September 2019
UNSW Galleries, Sydney


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