The Mad Potter of Biloxi

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Known for his eccentricity, pottery, and wild mustache, George Ohr contributed greatly to the history of pottery. This month we celebrate his birthday!

Born on July 12th, 1857, Ohr always considered himself the “odd duck” of the family. In 1879, upon visiting a friend in New Orleans, he fell in love with what would become his greatest love, pottery. For the first time, Ohr experienced working on the potter’s wheel and stated that he could feel the experience throughout his whole body. In his 20’s he traveled extensively around the United States, attending ceramic shows and museums; he was immersing himself in the rise of ceramic art beginning to take shape in our country.

Ohr decided pottery is what he must do as his career. He started a studio in Biloxi, Mississippi, and built himself a wheel and kiln while living with his parents to save money (like many college grads of today).

While his contemporaries were creating floral and delicate work mirroring the French and Japanese wares of the time, Ohr chose to break out from the mold and forge his own path, varying wildly from his peers. Like many artists of today, to support his family, Ohr made work that would sell to the customers of the time, planters, figurines, and simply designed dinnerware. This allowed him the opportunity to support his “mud babies.” Ohr’s “mud babies” were his passion and obsession, the creations he made to explore the medium of clay and its limits. He loved these pots as a parent loves their child; they were made with passion, decorated with wild handles, rippled from overlapping the material and glazed in fantastical colors.

As admired as his work is today, Ohr was seen as a joke to his contemporaries. His “mud babies” did not sell well and often people only went to look at them to get a good laugh. Once, full of confidence, Ohr dropped off a box of these babies to a museum that accepted them only to seem interested, and the box was left in storage collecting dust, only to be discovered many years after his death, and finally shown as the treasures they are.

Orh began promoting himself in the 1880’s, carrying signs proclaiming his genius, and marketing his unique style, but this was not received well by the public. They continued to think he was crazy and did not take his work seriously. After a fire burned down his studio in 1894, Ohr’s eccentricity and obsession for his work persisted, if not increased! He exhibited his work all around the country as well as in Paris, but only received one silver medal for “general work” and never made much, if any money at these shows. Deciding to no longer sell each of his babies separately, Orh only wanted to sell them in large numbers to collectors or museums, but if there was a rare person interested, he often tried to take them back and went so far as to bury a bunch of his creations, loving them so much he did not want anyone to have them. These buried wares are thought to still be out there today, with no map or clue leading anyone to disturb them.

Frustrated and disappointed in the lack of attention he knew he deserved, Ohr closed his studio in 1909 when he was only 52. He never threw another “mud baby” for the rest of his life. Ohr died in 1918, still confident that some day the world would catch up to his work and ideas. After his passing, about 7,000 “mud babies” sat in crates in one of Ohr’s son’s auto body shop, only seeing the light of day when a rambunctious kid would steal a few for target practice. It was not until nearly 50 years after his death, that Ohr’s wish for validation finally came to fruition.

One afternoon, James Carpenter, an antique dealer, strode into Ojo Ohr’s auto shop looking for an old car that caught his eye. Ojo asked if he would like to see some of his father’s pottery. Carpenter had no interest, but luckily, his wife was with him and eagerly wanted to see what the mechanic was talking about. A few years later, Carpented ended up buying all of Ohr’s work for a rumored price of about $50,000. Carpenter began selling some of the work and Ohr’s name began to reach artists outside of Biloxi.

The abstract expressionist movement of the 1950’s was boobing by the time Ohr’s wild forms hit the market. The times had finally caught up to Ohr’s genius of the late 19th century, and today, his work sells at prices up to $60,000 a piece! The dream to be famous and admired for his ideas finally came true for Ohr, and today is is seen as a genius potter ahead of his time and “the Picasso of art pottery.”

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