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Sunday, June 18, 2017

George Ohr (continued).

Yesterday, I discovered George Ohr through the Biloxi, Mississippi art museum which he inspired. Today, I thought it appropriate to delve further into the hardworking, talented, eccentric, old codger who became known to locals and tourists alike as the "Mad Potter of Biloxi." The name is somewhat unkind in that George seldom got angry at anyone, and was no more "mad" (as in crazy) than he chose to be in creating an all-important artist's persona. It was a shrewd marketing strategy still used by artists today aimed at selling their work by being colorful and more than a little peculiar. As a ceramicist, perhaps he should be called the "Mud Potter of Biloxi."

The George Ohr pottery mark. Some pieces are signed in script.
George Ohr had a restless adolescence in the confusion of the post-Civil War years. After learning the blacksmith trade from his father, George, at fourteen, left for New Orleans, where he tried nineteen different jobs. When he was twenty-two, a boyhood friend from Biloxi, Joseph Fortuné Meyer, offered Ohr a job as an apprentice potter in New Orleans. The course of the rest of George Ohr’s life was set--in clay.

Some of Ohr's vases were totally impractical
--they wouldn't hold water.
After he had learned his craft, the novice potter left New Orleans for a two-year, sixteen-state tour of potteries to learn all he could about the profession. Upon returning to Biloxi, Ohr built his pottery shop himself. He fabricated all of the ironwork, made the potter's wheel, the kiln, rafted lumber down river, sawed it into boards, and constructed his shop. Joseph Meyer had taught him how to use the natural resources around Biloxi, how to locate and dig clay from the banks of a nearby River. Using a skiff, Ohr floated his load back downstream to Biloxi.

Ohr awaits customers in his pottery shop. Sadly, there weren't many.
When his kiln was ready, Ohr worked hard at the potter’s wheel producing practical items like jugs, mugs, planters, flowerpots, and water bottles. He also found time to produce finer work, as well. In 1885, New Orleans hosted a World's Fair. The fair allowed Ohr to display his work for the first time to an international audience. He startled the art world with his extraordinary pots. He exhibited some six hundred pieces and won a silver medal. Unfortunately, all of them were stolen before he could get them back to Biloxi. Despite this, Ohr returned to Biloxi with a wife he'd met at the World's Fair, a Miss Josephine Gehring.

Vessel Cream Pot, George Edgar Ohr, 1903-1907.
Once back home, Ohr went into serious production for himself. Biloxi Art and Novelty Pottery, as he called his pink shop, was soon crammed with vessels of all shapes, sizes, and decorations, “rustic, ornamental, new and ancient shaped vases, etc.” Ohr differed from most artists of his time in that, as he created his pots, he also created himself. Ohr presented himself as a brash, wildly eccentric artisan, mischievously wearing a beard and moustache that has to be seen to be believe. Somehow, he managed to hook his moustache over his ears. As a result, he gave his business a carnival atmosphere.

The damaged kiln was about all that remained as fire destroyed George Ohr's studio to and all of his work. The loss of his life's work seemed to unleash a new-found energy in Ohr's work, which gained a greater
fluidity and mastery.

Then, in the fall of 1894, a fire wiped out Ohr's pottery, along with twenty other business establishments in Biloxi. After the fire Ohr "rescued" several of his damaged art. He couldn't bear to part with his burned pots--he called them his "Burnt Babies" (below). Undeterred, Ohr rebuilt a brand new pottery with a five-story tower shaped like a pagoda. He called it Biloxi Art Pottery Unlimited. It wasn't long before the tourists returned in great numbers. At the same time, Ohr's friend, Joseph Meyer had become a teaching potter at Sophie Newcomb College (now part of Tulane University). He again asked Ohr to work with him in New Orleans. From 1897 to 1899 Ohr divided his time between Biloxi and New Orleans, working constantly to supplement his income for his growing family. He and his wife had ten children, though only five survived to adulthood.
George Ohr "Burnt Babies"
Ohr's cups and saucers, plaques of local sites, Mississippi mule ink wells, tiny artist's pallets, puzzle mugs, and molded souvenirs of all kinds, were popular with tourists and local residents. But his extraordinary skill at the potter's wheel making his art-ware brought him to the attention of the ceramic art world. Ohr threw extremely delicate, thin-walled pots which he manipulated into exotic forms by twisting, denting, ruffling, and folding the clay into vases. Ohr's "serious" creations were not popular with the public. Victorian art pottery of his day was carefully controlled and decorated. Ohr’s energetic, expressionistic treatment of clay was too wild even for refined tastes. Today, some consider Ohr the world's first abstract artist.

The $7,000 Twisted Cup, George Ohr. In 1968, James W. Carpenter, an antiques dealer from Montague, N. J., arrived in Biloxi to search for his specialty--old cars at the auto repair shop owned by Ohr's sons. They showed him their father's crates of unsold pottery. Two years later Carpenter bought the horde for about $50,000. In 1972, Carpenter sold individual pieces for $40 to $1,200. One of them, the Twisted Cup (above) recently sold for $7,000. Brightly glazed pieces go for much more.

Ohr was passionate about his work and supremely confident in his talent. He wrote to an art critic, “I am making pottery for art’s sake, God’s sake, the future generation, and by present indications, for my own satisfaction; but when I'm gone, my work will be prized, honored and cherished.” In 1899 he packed up eight pieces and sent them to the Smithsonian Institution. One of the pots was inscribed, “I am the Potter Who Was.” Ohr gave up his profession as potter in 1909. His landmark ceramic shop became Biloxi's first auto repair shop, run by his sons. Ohr was urged by his family to sell his pots. Instead he packed up the lot of them (several thousand) that he could not, or would not, sell and stored them away. He was confident that the world would someday recognize him as “the greatest art potter on earth.” Modesty was never one of his virtues. George Ohr died of throat cancer in 1918.

Click above to learn how to make twisted pots.


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