NEW YORK – It can be safely said that George Ohr (Mississippi, 1857-1918) was the P.T. Barnum of ceramic artistry of his day. As the self-described “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” Ohr was a relentless self-promoter, calling his work “unequaled, undisputed and unrivaled.” He dressed and groomed himself in a manner that was daring and eccentric for the time, sporting a big bushy mustache and having photos taken of himself that only enhanced his outrageous reputation.
But he wasn’t all bluster. In recognition of his innovative experimentation with modern clay forms between 1880 and 1910, some say he helped usher in the American Abstract-Expressionist movement. He was also prolific, creating well over 10,000 known pots during his lifetime. The son of German immigrants who arrived in New Orleans around 1850, Ohr tried his hand at many trades before settling on ceramics in 1879, when he apprenticed under Joseph Fortune Meyer.
In 1884, Ohr got a boost when he exhibited and sold his pottery at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. He boasted that “no two pieces are alike” and attendees took note of a style of pottery that featured thin walls, metallic glazes and twisted, pinched shapes. Even today, few potters have been able to replicate Ohr’s creations using a pottery wheel. One of his secrets was the clay, which he mostly dug locally, in Mississippi’s Tchoutacabouffa River (Tchoutacabouffa, in fact, is the Biloxi tribe word for “broken pot”).
Ohr’s pottery was as eccentric as he was, and it did not sell well while he was alive. He died largely unknown of throat cancer, at age 50. For years afterward, his pots sat in a garage behind his son’s gas station in Biloxi. But eventually they saw the light of day and over time Ohr was viewed as groundbreaking and a precursor of the abstract sculpture and pottery that developed in the mid-20th century. Today, his pieces are relatively rare and are greatly sought after by collectors. When his sales flagged, Ohr once said, “I have a notion that I am a mistake,”but added, “When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored and cherished. It will come.”
“George Ohr’s work is so different from anything made during his lifetime and really, most things made since,” said Riley Humler of the Humler & Nolan auction house in Cincinnati. “He is like an alien presence in the pottery world and, in hindsight, he really was a genius. Not everything he made was amazing but when the right glaze combination and his remarkable twisted forms work well together, the results can be breathtaking.”
Humler added, “Ohr’s ability to form clay so thin and to torture it with bare hands is unreal. His work needs to be felt to be appreciated. His best work predates the abstract movement by several decades and the only explanation for what he did might be that he was from another planet. When we see something so out of the ordinary as his work, it’s impossible not to take notice.”
Brandt Zipp of Crocker Farm in Sparks, Maryland, observed that while Ohr exhibited his pottery extensively and became a local folk hero in his day, he did not garner anywhere near the national (or even worldwide) recognition he claimed to deserve. “It’s clear that Ohr was never completely forgotten in the decades after his death, and that people were aware that his wife and children were saving thousands of pieces of pottery in what ended up being a garage on the property of the family auto repair shop,” Zipp said.
Zipp said there are many early American potters who today we are still bringing back into the spotlight, but their work doesn’t necessarily translate to the level of excitement George Ohr’s does. “Today potters are working with a cutting edge understanding of the science behind glazing and firing techniques,” he said, “but I’ve yet to see someone working before or after George Ohr capable of making something as beautiful as he was, in terms of glaze and form.”
Sierra Orlowski of Neal Auction in New Orleans remarked that Van Gogh, Gaugin and Seurat were all masters before their time. “Unrecognized and undervalued during their lifetimes, artists like these evolved into world-renowned successes only years after their lives,” she pointed out. “Much like these now highly recognized geniuses, Ohr had concepts far beyond his time. His whimsical, atypical designs shocked the public, to whom classic Asian and European porcelain was the desired aesthetic. For Ohr, his ‘mud babies’ were always masterpieces.”
Orlowski said Biloxi in the late 1800s was a tourist destination, known for the beach, an opera house, fresh fish … and the Mad Potter. “Tourists visited Ohr’s studio, surrounded by signs claiming him to be the world’s best art potter. Despite countless opportunities to sell his creations to passersby, Ohr never became a success, due to his tentative designs and poor business tactics. Not only were his prices exorbitantly high for the time, but he also had difficulty letting go of his work, leading him to dissuade buyers from their soon-to-be acquisitions. He got so frustrated he closed the studio and packed over 7,000 creations into boxes.”
It wasn’t until 50 years after his death that Ohr’s pottery was even seen, much less recognized, as spectacular by the public. Antique dealer Jim Carpenter visited the studio in 1968 and fell in love with Ohr’s work. “He offered $15,000 for all 7,000 pieces, but Ohr’s son continued in his father’s legacy of bad business, turning away the offer,” Orlowski said. “Years later, the two made a deal, landing somewhere around $50,000 for the contents of Ohr’s studio.”
Carpenter sold the pieces across the market, and celebrities, collectors and museums became enthralled, Orlowski said. “His bright underglazes and exciting forms broke the structure of the typical pottery model. In a time of artistic expression in the United States, Ohr finally found his time. He had finally received the fame that he knew he was always destined for. The market caught up with him and his experimentation and whimsical designs were celebrated instead of cast as ridiculous, as they once were.”
“Interest in the pottery of George Ohr stems primarily from two factors, I believe,” said Will Kimbrough of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mount Crawford, Va. “First, his oversized personality really drew people in. He worked hard to cultivate an image of himself as an eccentric in his own lifetime and, viewed from today, he exemplifies the archetype of the outsider artist – the visionary, the natural-born genius – who is misunderstood, and often ridiculed, in his own time.
“Second,” Kimbrough said, “Ohr was able to blur the lines between art and object, expression and representation, in ways that had not been done before in ceramic arts. There were plenty of potters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who pushed the boundaries of decorative potential in ceramic forms – the Kirkpatricks at Anna pottery and Anthony Baecher of the Shenandoah Valley, for instance – but Ohr’s work differs greatly from these other potters in regard to his level of abstraction, a product purely of his own self-expression. Most potters in his time made pots to meet the expectations of clients. Ohr made pots to satisfy his own creative appetite.”