Published: September 2, 2003
The Mad Potter Leaves Home and Comes Back Again
BILOXI, LA. — When the new Frank Gehry-designed museum complex opens on the Mississippi Coast in 2005, Biloxi’s contribution to the legacy of hometown potter George E. Ohr (1857-1918) will change dramatically. At the present time, tourists can visit a single large gallery displaying around 230 examples, owned and loaned, in a municipal building shared with the local public library. In the future, a dedicated structure, the George Ohr Gallery, will draw visitors and donations from around the country.
Gehry’s manipulated architecture would appear to be an ideal match for Ohr’s manipulated pottery. Funding for the new museum has been propelled by former Biloxi Mayor Jerry O’Keefe who gave a million dollars in memory of his wife Annette and then worked assiduously to persuade others to do the same. In the meantime, supporters such as Bob Tannen and Jeanne Nathan shared their enthusiasm for Ohr with Gehry, so that he agreed to design what is, for him, a relatively modest project.
Museum Director Marjorie Gowdy points out, “Ohr predicted that one day someone would build a temple for his pottery. Our plan is that many donations of his work will be featured in the years to come at the new museum. Sometime within the coming year after the groundbreaking, Mr Gehry will start designing the installation of exhibits for the Ohr Gallery itself. He’ll be interested in particular pieces of pottery, and we’re hoping that potential donors of pottery will keep that in mind. The buildings themselves are not really that large, so it will be a very intimate setting, which will be just wonderful, especially for Ohr — it’s a very magical architectural design.”
The Ohr Gallery will be one part of the complex of small structures in the Gehry plan, which also includes a Ceramics Arts Institute, an African-American Art Gallery and a Gallery of Contemporary Art. When constructed on its choice site on the main beach-access highway, the complex will provide a cultural attraction for the entire Gulf Coast tourist scene.
Ohr’s Life and Career
Most people know Ohr only through his characteristic pottery forms and numerous photographic portraits made during his lifetime. In addition to pictures of the muscular potter with his product, there are various trick poses featuring his immensely-long mustaches, which helped earn the “mad” title for this undoubtedly eccentric artist. Biographical research undertaken to flesh out the persona of this craftsman has revealed the deep paradoxes that ran through his life. Ohr dreamed up inventive ways to publicize his personality and body of work, yet was reluctant to part with the creations he affectionately considered his mud babies.
To be born in Mississippi in 1857 meant growing up during the turmoil of the American Civil War and the South’s defeat and “reconstruction” that followed. The Ohr family came to the United States with thousands of immigrants to escape hard times in Europe; father George Ohr, Sr, set up in Biloxi as a blacksmith. Like many working-class children, son George had almost no formal education in a book-learning sense but was expected to learn a trade as an apprentice, starting in childhood.
He was a headstrong young man often at odds with his family. He tried one trade after another, left home at 14, gave sailing life a try, and then returned to Biloxi with no resolution. But in 1879, Ohr had the first of his life-transforming bumps with fate, when old family friend and accomplished potter Joseph Fortune Meyer offered the young man a job in New Orleans. When he saw his first throwing wheel at the studio, Ohr reportedly said, “I knew it was my home.”
After learning the basics, George was ready for the next jolt: a two-year journey that took him through 16 states, right up to the border of Canada. The impressionable young man soaked up any and all information about ceramics. After he had finished looking at other people’s potteries, he returned to Biloxi and set up one of his own. As every southern gardener knows, clay is free for the taking; George dug his from the bluffs along the Tchoutacabouffa River.
In the 1800s, craftsmen were expected to exhibit their wares in major cities, so Ohr took 600 pieces — no two alike — to the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. Fairs provided an opportunity to view other potters’ work as well as exotic exhibits from foreign countries. So Ohr’s early pieces share the design influences common in his age: his choice of shapes make it clear that he had seen ancient pottery from Mediterranean and Oriental civilizations. His genius was in the transformation of vase or pitcher into something never seen before.
When he advertised in the 1880s, Ohr was making a broad variety of products: flower pots, drain tiles, stove flues, water jugs and — at the bottom — artistic wares. If his heart was in the art pottery, much of the output on view was purely practical in nature. George’s 1886 marriage to Josephine Gehring, who eventually bore him ten children, made regular income a priority.
Most scholars consider the 1894 fire that burned down Ohr’s workshop — along with much of Biloxi — as a turning point in his artistic life. “After the Fire,” a 1994 conflagration centenary exhibition and sale put together by art pottery dealer David Rago at the Kurland-Zabar Gallery, was accompanied by an excellent catalog by Eugene Hecht (still available from Rago for $20) that discusses Ohr’s reaction to the loss of everything he had created up to that time. Rago explains, “The premise of the show was, after the fire burned his pottery to the ground and he rebuilt it from scratch, he was a different potter — it freed him from his past.”
Concerning the postfire output, Hecht said recently, “He had to make a whole life’s work in a relatively short time. In that explosion of creativity, he develops rapidly. I’ve seen a couple hundred of the cremated pieces and early marked pieces that survived the fire. There are folds and sweeping gestures, but you don’t really see the energy and kind of successful fluidity of the later work. The fire was liberating but it also it put a pressure on him to produce vigorously. He must have felt out of equilibrium until he was once again surrounded by the work that justified his life.”
Ohr’s Legacy and Reputation
When Ohr passed away in 1918, much of his best work from the after-the-fire years remained on family shelves. Wife Josephine and his five surviving sons would occasionally sell a piece, but the sons were not artistically inclined. The unwrapped pottery shapes — some broken, all filthy — were eventually stored in son Ojo’s junkyard awaiting oblivion or rediscovery. Ohr’s work had been known beyond Biloxi during his lifetime — he had even won a silver medal at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair — but his flamboyant personality obscured his innate talent.
In After the Fire, Eugene Hecht quotes a prophetic passage in a 1899 article in The China, Glass, and Pottery Review discussing “Biloxi Pottery From an Artistic Standpoint”:
“Mr Ohr is by no mean a crank, but is a naturally bright, even brilliant man, who has been led into the belief that the way for him to attain publicity is through the channel of preposterous advertising, and the signs which he has placed around Biloxi do him more harm than good, for they create on their very face a spirit of ridicule and distrust.
“…if Mr. Ohr would pack up his collection and come to New York and place himself under the guidance of some reputable house where his affairs could be conducted in a dignified spirit, his collection would sell to the best class of people in the city.”
Hecht notes, “He was not a traditional arts and crafts person. Other potteries were making vases within the boundaries of the new Arts and Crafts aesthetic. The only thing Ohr had to do with the period was that he was born then. But yet he had the root aesthetic and a commitment to making art by hand; he was disturbed by Rookwood because there were so many hands involved in each pot. Ohr was not concerned in making vessels but in making art or sculpture. When he’s really percolating in the last several years, he’s creating sculpture and only using the vase as the medium.”
Ohr truly did have to leave the city of his birth and career to achieve the fame he always desired. David Rago tells the story of Ohr’s resurrection: “The Ohr pots sold around 1970, when Jim Carpenter — an antique dealer and barber from New Jersey — went down there to Biloxi to buy auto parts at the junkyard Ohr’s sons ran. That’s when he found the pots and brought the whole collection back here en masse to New Jersey. The first couple of years, it was slow going, but by 1975 Ohr had been discovered. His sons knew it was good, but it didn’t really have any value back then because there was no market for it. Even Rookwood and Newcomb hadn’t taken off at that time — you could buy great pieces for a hundred bucks. Ohr’s pots were no exception: nobody really wanted them. Once they arrived here, that changed. They were near New York City, and you had New York art people getting involved. Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol begin collecting George Ohr and that made a huge difference.”
On the other hand, the departure of much of Ohr’s work from its original home created serious collection problems when Biloxi citizens finally established the George Ohr Arts & Cultural Center in the 1990s, later incorporated as the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum. Curator of Ceramics Katherine Lochridge says, “In 1970, Mr Carpenter came down looking for auto parts and ended up with Ohr pottery. People here have mixed feelings about him. On one level, he was kind of a carpetbagger because he took it to New Jersey. We have an acquisition campaign, in fact, called ‘Bring George Home’ to gather his works back here. But I happen to believe that Carpenter did benefit Ohr’s legacy because you had to bring his work to the world stage in order to make his reputation.”
Lochridge divides her time between fundraising duties and research. She hopes to eventually accumulate an extensive database of Ohr’s artistic output. Biloxi can never regain most of the Ohr pottery that left here 30 years ago, but the new museum could make the potter’s birthplace a center for Ohr studies.
Once the galleries open, the strange story of George Ohr can once again unfold in the climate and terrain where he was born.
The recent groundbreaking ceremony for the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum complex in Biloxi was a vindication of potter George Ohr’s personal opinion, oft expressed, about his proper place in the artistic universe. Like many visionaries, Ohr was not honored in his own community during his lifetime. If there is a balcony in the afterlife, George looked down with satisfaction on the complimentary speeches.
A perfect evening on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi was enhanced by a full moon and the excrdf_Descriptionent of a partial eclipse. Ohr would not have been surprised by the presence of Frank Gehry, perhaps the world’s best-known living architect. His employment for the design of the buildings would make sense to the supremely self-confident craftsman. The gospel music that warmed up the crowd would have been a familiar sound in Ohr’s day, but anyone living Mississippi in the late Nineteenth Century would be amazed by the multiracial lineup of distinguished community leaders who have lent their support to the project.
“I have friends who have collections of the Ohr pottery, and I respected it and loved it. So that was a significant reason to participate in itself,” he began. “They made a compelling argument that I could make something special here and significantly contribute to the memory of George Ohr, so that was exciting. When I got here, they kept adding things to the project. They wanted a contemporary little wing. Well, I love contemporary art — I’ve hung out with artists all my life and that intrigued me, to have living artists who were making works today close to George Ohr.”
He continued, “I really got excited when I heard about the African-American portion of it. There’s a significant contribution which has been made by those artists over the years and it’s time to show the scope and beauty of that work to an international audience. I thought making that a part of this project in this city would make it an even more significant project.”
Many Ohr collectors and scholars were in the crowd to hear Gehry’s speech. The enthusiasm for the potter’s genius shared at the beginning by only a few dedicated people has now spread from East Coast salons back to the artist’s home town. Among the listeners were Marty Shack and his wife Estelle, longtime supporters of the Ohr museum concept. Shack noted, “This is the first time there has ever been a museum dedicated to a potter rather than a painter. Ohr sold hardly anything during his lifetime, but he thought America would take over his ceramic production intact as a national treasure. Now that is beginning to happen. The most wonderful aspect of this project is that it encompasses the entire community in Biloxi.”
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