Published: July 24, 2001
BILOXI, MISS. – The week of July 9, the Trustees of The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art unveiled Pulitzer Prize-winning architect Frank O. Gehry’s model for a museum that showcases the cultural legacy of American artists of the Southeast. The centerpiece of the $16-million museum, designed as a series of pavilions amid a four-acre grove of ancient live oak trees on the Mississippi Sound, is a gallery dedicated to “the father of American pottery,” George E. Ohr. The new museum will also feature African-American folk art and history, as well as works by contemporary artists of the region.
George E. Ohr ((1857-1918) is considered to be the father of American pottery and is recognized for his innovative sculptural vessels with incredibly thin pinched, crimped, fluted and manipulated walls. Ohr trained extensively by apprenticing with potters throughout 16 states and in southeastern region of the US, including the New Orleans Art Pottery, where he rededicated himself as an “art potter.” Over the following decades, Ohr evolved his pioneering art form using the traditional ceramic vessel as a three-dimensional medium for his highly expressionist art.
Unable to find an appreciative audience for his vessels, Ohr made ceramic souvenirs to support his family. To draw attention to his wares, he adapted an eccentric persona and became known as the “Mad Potter of Biloxi” for his two-foot mustache and wild proclamations such as his being the “unequaled, unrivaled, undisputed greatest art pot-Ohr on earth.”
Throughout his career, Ohr produced thousands of his sculptural vessels. Shortly before the end of his life, he stored his “mud babies” in crates in the attic of his son’s auto repair shop with instructions that the trove was not to be opened for 50 years, when the world would be ready for his visionary works. In 1972 an antiques dealer discovered the more than 7,000 Ohr sculptures and today the works are studied, discussed, collected and viewed all across the nation and Europe.
The groundbreaking for the 25,000 square-foot museum is scheduled for early 2002, with the opening anticipated in 2004.
“It is an extraordinary privilege to have Frank Gehry, the most influential architect of our time, working on the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art,” said former Biloxi Mayor Jeremiah O’Keefe. “The union of Frank’s innovative design with the expressive sculptural vessels of George Ohr and the cultural heritage of the region will create a harmonious village of art, culture and history, unlike any other in the South or the nation.”
Civic leader and civil rights activist Jeremiah O’Keefe has raised the first $7 million of the $16 million capital campaign, after launching the campaign with a lead gift of $1 million in memory of his first wife Annette.
Frank Gehry is internationally acclaimed for his use of technological advances to create structures in a wide variety of shapes and materials new to contemporary architecture. The architect’s sculptural buildings blend the artistic with the functional and are reminiscent of George Ohr’s expressive and whimsical ceramic vessels. Ohr, a pioneering Nineteenth Century art potter, was a skilled colorist, glazer and technician who manipulated his hand-built ceramic vessels into unusual shapes and forms that pre-date Surrealism.
“The freedom of expression and spontaneity that George Ohr’s works embrace have long been an inspiration for me. His flowing shapes imply a sense of movement that is similar to the gestures of some of my buildings,” said Frank Gehry. “Jerry O’Keefe’s dream to make this visionary artist a national treasure is an important effort that we are honored to help fulfill.”
The first museum to be dedicated to an American potter, The Ohr-O’Keefe will have five pavilions – three galleries, a cultural center and an education building – linked by a central courtyard. The Pleasant Reed House, a Nineteenth Century historic structure named after the former slave who built the house, is situated as the keystone at the entryway to the museum complex.
Marjorie Gowdy, director of The Ohr-O’Keefe, said, “George Ohr was a genius ahead of his time, whose body of work was virtually unappreciated in his life. When we opened the George Ohr Art and Cultural Center in 1994, we aspired to share Ohr’s legacy with the world. Now, thanks to the genius of Frank Gehry and the passionate determination of Jerry O’Keefe, our aspiration have become a reality.”
The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum complex and an adjacent Native American meditation garden overlooking the site of a former tribal village will be set within Tricentennial Park, an eight-acre park housing the restored antebellum Tullis Manor and adjacent former slave quarters and a new public pier and boardwalk with access to the historic Biloxi Schooners. Gehry and Associates developed a master plan to integrate The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art with the Tricentennial Park as a cohesive and accessible cultural campus.
Each 2,000-square-foot gallery has a front porch oriented towards the waterfront. Both the George E. Ohr Gallery, designed as an interpretation of the contemporary lines of Ohr’s sculptural vessels, and the African-American Gallery, which evokes the spirit of African-American art forms, have main exhibition halls and a series of small alcoves for accentuating small-scale works such as vessels, masks, and carved figurines. A third gallery for regional contemporary art is designed with flexible space to accommodate works in a variety of media and sizes.
The Pleasant Reed House, currently in downtown Biloxi, will be moved to The Ohr-O’Keefe campus and serve as the keystone and entryway to the campus. Built in 1887 in the long narrow “shotgun” style, the woodframe house will be fully restored and furnished with period pieces to serve as a resource of life in the Nineteenth Century and present demonstrations of traditional southern African-American cooking. Situated beside the Pleasant Reed House will be the Cultural Center, which also serves as the museum’s welcome center housing the museum store, a café facing the historic antebellum Tullis Manor, and a 75-acre lecture / AV Hall with retractable seating for receptions.
The Education Pavilion, across the courtyard from the Welcome Center, will be instructional and educational resource for the arts and traditional crafts, including basket weaving and pottery. The design of the building is reminiscent of an 1896 five-tiered pagoda, a popular tourist souvenir that Ohr produced and sold to support his family. The building’s five-story structure has two large bays for ceramic studios, an outdoor kiln, a southern pottery research library, a pottery conservation laboratory with observation windows for visitors, as well as administrative offices and conference rooms. On the north side of the building, away from the sound, there will be a 2,000-square-foot vault to house the museum’s objects in the event of a hurricane or flooding.
The Biloxi-based executive architect team of Guild Hardy Associates is working with Frank Gehry and Associates. Frank Genzer is the project liaison and W.G. Yates & Sons, also of Biloxi, are the site contractors. Architect James Dodds of Baton Rouge who is certified by the National Trust for Historic Preservation will oversee the restoration of the Pleasant Reed House.
Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry is known internationally for his distinctive structures that incorporate new forms and materials, in particular the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which has received unanimous critical and public acclaim. Other important recent commissions include the American Center in Paris, the University of Toledo Center for the Visual Arts, the Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, and the forthcoming Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Gehry’s work has receive the most significant awards in the architectural field, including: the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture from the American Academy of the Arts and Letters (1977), the Praemium Imperiale Award by the Japanese Art Association (1992), Dorothy and Lillian Gish Award, the first ever awarded, for lifetime contribution to the arts (1994), the Pritzker Architectural Prize (1989), the National Medal of the Arts (1998), the AIA Gold Metal (1999), the Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects (2000), and the lifetime Achievement Award from Americans for the Arts (2000).
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm