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December 8, 2007 - February 23, 2008 at American Museum of Ceramic Art [AMoCA], Pomona

by Andy Brumer

Move over Vincent van Gogh and Emily Dickinson, and make room for the American ceramist George E. Ohr, another visionary artist whose work went unappreciated during his lifetime, then rose to prominence years after his death. Ohr (1857-1918) was born in Biloxi, Mississippi and trained as a commercial potter of utilitarian ware. However, he grew increasingly interested in the expressive possibilities of clay. His experimentations began by altering his wheel-thrown works via allowing the centrifugal force of the wheel itself to create pots that twisted, folded, leaned, bent and buckled eccentrically.

Indeed, the theatricality of his work mirrored Ohr’s flamboyant persona and physical appearance, sealed by his signature massive mustache and wild eyes.  An inveterate self-promoter, he proclaimed himself “The Mad Potter of Biloxi,” at state fairs, international expositions and other venues, where he exhibited and sold his work. Ohr also hand made souvenir pottery for tourists, some of it hilariously bawdy in nature. For example, his press-molded brothel coins contained clever word/picture phrases with sexual messages, such as “Good for One Screw,” with the last word presented as a pictorial screw embossed on the coin.

Perhaps Ohr’s buffoonery represented a marketing bluff, but a fierce work ethic and indefatigable spirit certainly ballasted his deeper nature. After a fire in 1894 destroyed his studio and all of his work (ten thousand pieces), he rebuilt the facility and became even more committed to working in novel ways. The walls of his ceramic pieces became thinner and thinner, as well as increasingly light weight. Their shapes became ever more asymmetrical, while retaining their lyricism and fluid feel. Pots, vases and other objects displayed elaborate ribboned and/or ruffled-edge handles, spouts or rims, some taking the form of three-dimensional snakes or serpents. As Ohr’s interest in the formal sculptural qualities of his work deepened, he also began to leave some pieces in their unglazed bisque form.

Critics of that time denounced Ohr’s unconventional work as ugly or bizarre, and, again, it went virtually unrecognized during his lifetime. Today, with all of hindsight’s sad and predictable irony, people recognize and celebrate the work as a valuable precursor to the Abstract Expressionists’ attitude toward clay during the 1950’s, and the renewed interest in the art pottery movement during the 1970’s.

“Red Glaze Pitcher," c. 1895-1900.

“Lighthouse Pot," green and gunmetal
glaze, footed vase; incised patterns
of lighthouses on body, inscribed "Biloxi
Ohr" on bottom, 6 1/2" h x 9" w.

Cadogan Vessel," a tea pot look-a-like,
but with a non-removable lid (probably
glazed in place). This piece is filled
from the bottom. c. 1898-1907.

George E. Ohr, photo from
Ohr family album, c. 1900.

Indeed, the world might have remained forever ignorant of this master had it not been for an antique dealer named Jim Carpenter. As Ohr grew ill, he gave his studio to his son, who turned it into an automobile repair shop.  There, during the late 1960’s while looking for antique car parts, Carpenter discovered the six thousand pieces that constituted all of Ohr’s work, and he subsequently purchased them for fifty thousand dollars.

Viewers can see forty of Ohr’s key works in this exhibition, “Ohr Rising:  The Emergence of an American Master,” which was organized by the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi. The word “Rising” in the show’s title refers both to Ohr’s ascendance into the contemporary art world and the “rise from destruction” theme taken on by Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in its ongoing effort to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

A corollary exhibition, Other Mad Potters, organized by AMOCA, runs concurrently with the Ohr show, and features the work of four contemporary potters, Steve Horn, Don Pilcher, Mary Roehm and Lisa Orr, all of whom in some way have been influenced by or reflect the qualities of Ohr’s ceramics.