“When I found the potter's wheel I felt it all over like a wild duck in water.” This was the reaction of George Ohr (1857-1918) after a period of time as an apprentice potter in New Orleans. After he learned his craft, he left New Orleans for a two-year, sixteen-state tour of potteries in the United States to learn all he could about the profession. He returned to Biloxi and built his pottery shop himself.
(The works shown here are on display at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, MS. See the previous two entries about the Museum.)
7-3/4” x 4-3/4”
During his lifetime, Ohr would suffer three significant setbacks in the pursuit of his work that warranted his self-proclaimed identification as “the world’s greatest potter.”
2” x 1-3/4”
Rather than insisting on symmetry, he pinched and prodded his pots into odd amorphous shapes, with naturalistic flutes and folds that have nothing to do with usefulness.
2-1/2” x 4-3/4”
When his kiln and supplies were ready, he worked hard at the potter’s wheel producing practical items like jugs, mugs, planters, flowerpots, and water bottles. He found time to produce finer work, as well. Ohr startled the art world at the 1885 World's Fair in New Orleans with his extraordinary pots. He exhibited some six hundred pieces, which were stolen before he could get them back to Biloxi.
Ohr worked in New Orleans from 1880-1900 until the company went out of business. He returned to Biloxi and again went into serious production for himself. In no time his shop was crammed with vessels of all shapes, sizes, and decorations, “rustic, ornamental, new and ancient shaped vases, etc.” As he created his pots, he also created himself. Ohr presented himself as a wildly eccentric person—brash, mischievous, wearing flowing beard and hair, and hooking his moustache over his ears. He gave his business a carnival atmosphere, and visitors flocked to his workshop to watch the activity.
Tragedy struck in the fall of 1894, when a fire wiped out the pottery workshop along with twenty other business establishments in Biloxi.
Again, he rebuilt his shop and, again, the tourists flocked to this location.
His cups and saucers, plaques of local sites, Mississippi mule ink wells, tiny artist pallets, puzzle mugs, and molded souvenirs of all kinds, were popular with tourists and local residents.
3-1/2” x 2-1/4”
2-3/4” x 4-1/4”
The secret of the puzzle mug was knowing which holes to cover up so that one could drink from the mug
3” x 3-1/2”
This one reads "Make My (picture of donkey) Tired"
But his extraordinary skill at the potter's wheel making his artware 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, “no two alike.” He said in an interview, “I brood over [each pot] with the same tenderness a mortal child awakens in its parent.”
4” x 7-1/2”
8-1/4” x 3-3/4”
Ohr's serious creations did not find popularity with the public. And because the Victorian art pottery of the day was carefully controlled and decorated, Ohr’s energetic and expressionistic treatment of clay was too wild even for refined tastes.
4” x 6”
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.”
8” x 4-1/2”
R Vase, c. 1900
4-1/8” x 3-1/2”
The 1904 Louisiana Purchase International Exposition was both a triumph and a disaster for Ohr. He won a Silver Medal for the most original art pottery. He displayed several hundred of his finest pieces and sold nothing. No one would pay the prices he demanded. Nonetheless his virtuosity in throwing pots and his glazes were admired by ceramic critics and potters. He was called “one of the most interesting potters in the United States.” The famous ceramics teacher Charles Binns cited Ohr as a genius. Still, Ohr’s refusal to sell his fine pieces at attractive prices prohibited him from the recognition and success for which he longed.
9-1/8” x 3-3/8”
In approximately 1905, Ohr stopped glazing his pottery, leaving it in the bisque form.
3-1/4” x 5”
4-3/4” x 7”
Ohr gave up his profession as potter in 1909. The famous ceramic shop landmark became Biloxi's first auto repair shop, run by his sons. Urged to sell his pots by his family, Ohr instead packed up the several thousand pots 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.” He died of cancer in Biloxi in 1918.
5” x 4”
In 1968, James W. Carpenter, an antiques dealer from New Jersey looking for old cars, happened upon the crates of pots stored in the Ohr Boys' Auto Repair Shop. He subsequently bought the entire cache of 6,000 pieces for $50,000. As the pots began to come on the market, art pottery collectors were intrigued, art historians began to re-evaluate his importance, and his pots began to sell for thousands of dollars.
Today Ohr is a cult figure in the art world. One contemporary critic has described his work as “boldly fixed at the extreme of chance, spontaneity, natural asymmetry, calculated imperfection, rustic vigor, wit, and mischief.”
The information above is taken from an article by Patti Carr Black in Mississippi History Now entitled “George E. Ohr: America’s First Art Potter” (mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/30/george-e-ohr-americas-first-art-potter)