George Ohr was known for his eccentric personality and the wild and exaggerated pottery that he sold at his studio on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
George E. Ohr was known as the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” a moniker given for his eccentric personality and the wild and exaggerated pottery that he sold at his studio on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He ranks among the most imaginative and creative ceramic artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Considered a forerunner of the modernist art movement, his brightly colored, sculpted pots, which he called his “clay babies,” were radical departures in form and brilliance from the conventional aesthetics of the late Victorian era.
From early photographs, Ohr appears as flamboyant as his art. He often spiked his long hair in opposite directions, and his long handlebar mustache twisted outward like tentacles. His eyes were playful but focused. Ohr was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, on July 12, 1857 to George and Johanna Ohr, who arrived in the United States in 1853 from Alsace, a disputed region claimed by both France and Germany throughout the nineteenth century. Entering the port of New Orleans, the Ohrs moved on to Biloxi, where George Sr. opened a blacksmith shop and later a grocery store. Young George learned blacksmithing and at the age of fourteen moved to New Orleans, where he worked at various jobs.
Eight years later, a friend from Biloxi, Joseph Fortuné Meyer (later a teacher who gained acclaim with pottery at the Newcomb College Art Studio in New Orleans), changed Ohr’s life forever. Meyer offered him a job as an apprentice potter. Ohr later wrote, “When I found the potter’s wheel I felt it all over like a wild duck in water.” After two years learning the craft, Ohr embarked on a two-year tour of potteries throughout the United States. Upon completion of his odyssey, he returned to Biloxi, where he built his own pottery studio and shop and began making utilitarian pottery from clay he dug from the nearby Tchoutacabouffa River. While making functional pottery to earn a living, Ohr also experimented with his art. He showed more than six hundred pieces at the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. Unfortunately, all six hundred pieces were stolen before Ohr returned home to Biloxi. While in New Orleans, he met and later married Josephine Gehring.
The Exposition was another turning point in Ohr’s life. The brothers William and Ellsworth Woodward of Massachusetts, building upon the success of adult art classes they taught during the Exposition, established the New Orleans Art Pottery, which later evolved into the art department at Newcomb College, renowned for its legacy of fine ceramic work. The Woodwards hired Meyer to help run New Orleans Art Pottery, who in turn hired Ohr. Ohr worked at the pottery from 1888 to 1890, after which he returned to Biloxi and went into full production at his newly built shop Biloxi Art and Novelty Pottery, which he painted bright pink. Art historian Patti Carr Black wrote in Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980, “As [Ohr] made his pots, he also created for himself a wildly eccentric persona — that of a brash and mischievous artist, wearing flowing beard and hair, hooking his moustache over his ears. He brought a show-business flavor to his shop, which became an established tourist attraction on the Gulf Coast; fascinated visitors could watch a virtuoso performance by the ‘mad potter of Biloxi’ and buy a memento of their trip.”
Tragically, Ohr’s studio and many other commercial buildings in Biloxi burned to the ground in 1894. Able to save many of his pots, Ohr immediately rebuilt an even grander pottery with a pagoda-shaped tower. He named his new business Biloxi Art Pottery Unlimited. In 1897, Newcomb College Art Studio selected Joseph Meyer as its potter, and once again Meyer hired Ohr to assist, a position he held this time from 1897 to 1899. Ohr divided his time between New Orleans and Biloxi. During these years, Ohr began to receive modest acclaim for his ceramic artworks, but not among the general public, which considered his works too avant-garde. He won an award at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair for the originality of his work, and critics raved about his pots. Ohr was never shy about his perceived place in the American art world. As Black noted in her book, Ohr sang his own praise in a letter to an art critic: “I am making pottery for art sake, God sake, the future generation, and — by present indications — for my own satisfaction, but when I’m gone (like Palissy) my work will be prized, honored and cherished.” In 1899, he sent several pieces to the Smithsonian Institution where, as Black wrote, “they were not honored.” On one of those pots, Black observed, Ohr had inscribed, “I am the Potter Who Was.”
By 1909 Ohr was so disillusioned with the public’s response to his work that he closed his pottery, which his sons subsequently turned into an auto repair shop. Thousands of unsold pots were stored away, but Ohr retained full confidence that one day he and his work would be revered by the public and art world. He died nine years later of cancer on April 7, 1918. Ohr’s predictions began to come true in 1968, when a New Jersey antiques dealer purchased the pots that Ohr had put into storage more than a half century earlier. His fame and prices for his pottery grew rapidly as these curious and singular little pots hit the market and galleries. “Perhaps fittingly, an homage from one artist to another kicked off the Ohr craze,” wrote Black. “The salute came through an exhibition of paintings in New York. Jasper Johns, a major American painter who was fascinated with the pots of George Ohr, used several of them as central figures in his new work in 1984.”
Today, Ohr is honored in his hometown of Biloxi in the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, which opened in 2010.