|By Sharon Verbeten
Usually being called “mad” or eccentric is a negative thing. But not for late 19th century Mississippi potter extraordinaire George Ohr – whose often oddly shaped wares have entranced collectors for years. In fact, it was Ohr himself, born in 1857 in Biloxi, Miss., who perpetuated his “Mad Potter of Biloxi” moniker. It helped him get recognition, but not always sales – at least not in his lifetime.
A new children’s biography, The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan (Roaring Brook, 2013), details Ohr’s life and work – in a short volume appropriate for both children and adults.
Ohr cheerfully described himself as a “rankey krankey solid individualist,” according to the book; his maverick persona, his fanciful personality and long twirly mustache couldn’t help but make an impression.
“He promoted himself as an eccentric,” says Barbara Johnson Ross, curator of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, which was designed by master architect Frank Gehry. “It was a marketing tool he used.” The museum has 189 pieces of Ohr wares in its collection.
Ohr began crafting clay as a young man, forming clay into long tubes, rolling it into sheets or pouring it into a mold. According to Greenberg and Jordan’s book, Ohr said, “When I found the potter’s wheel, I felt it all over like a duck in water.”
He was setting off on an amazing and uncertain career for a young man who never graduated from high school or even attended art school. But his creativity seemed to take over whenever he sat at the pottery wheel. His works ranged from teapots to vases – the latter often in odd or undulating shapes. His style was diverse, and his motto was “No two alike!” But he left his mark on pieces, with the stamp “Geo E. Ohr, Biloxi, Miss” on the bottom of each pot.
“He was at the forefront of the modern art movement in ceramics,” Ross said. “He did all of these things himself [including digging the clay], which made him unusual for the time.”
A fire in 1894 destroyed Ohr’s studio and home, but he soon rebuilt his Biloxi Art Pottery and continued to turn out his ruffled, twisted and free-flowing clay pots. He celebrated the individuality and inherent whimsy in his work, and he ascribed to the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Ohr wrote, “Shapes come to the potter as verses come to the poet,” according to the Greenberg-Jordan’s book.
Ohr displayed his “mud babies” at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904; while he won a silver medal for his work, no one bought his wares. He is quoted in the book as saying, “Every genius is in debt.”
In his day, Ohr’s pottery was misunderstood and, at times, looked at with disgust and dismay. But that would all change decades later – when his pots that looked so wild in the early 1900s looked a bit more contemporary.
Ohr died in 1910 and had previously instructed his family not to sell any of his remaining pottery for 50 years. By the 1970s, pieces by Ohr were commanding top dollar at auction.
“It’s the uniqueness and the fact that it was not made from a pottery that cranked out things,” Ross said of the interest in his work.
Perhaps Ohr himself summed up his remarkable and crazy life best: “I am making pots for art sake, the future generation and … for my own satisfaction, but when I’m gone … my work will be prized, honored and cherished.”
For more information on Ohr, visit the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art at www.georgeohr.org