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George Ohr: The Mad Potter of Biloxi

The following article is from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader.

If you have any droopy, squashed, or otherwise odd-looking ceramic pots lying around the house, they may be worth a lot more than you realize. George Ohr made thousands of them in his lifetime; today they’re worth a fortune. Many are still out there, waiting to be discovered.

THE DRIFTER

George E. Ohr was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1857. As was the custom in those days, as soon as this son of a blacksmith was old enough, he went to work as an apprentice in his father’s trade. But blacksmithing wasn’t for him. Neither was tinkering, working on the docks, seafaring, or any of the 16 other jobs he tried from age 14 to 22. It wasn’t until a friend, Joseph Meyer, talked him into accepting a $ 10-a-week apprenticeship in his family’s pottery studio that Ohr finally found something he wanted to do. “When I found the potter’s wheel I felt it all over, like a wild duck in water,” he said.

Ohr stuck with the apprenticeship for two years— a record for him. When he felt he’d learned everything he could from the Meyers, he hopped a boxcar and spent another two years traveling through 16 eastern states, visiting local pottery studios, museums, county fairs, and anyplace else he could meet potters and study their work. He returned to New Orleans in 1882 and the following year built his own studio in Biloxi.

MOONLIGHTING

Ohr supported himself and, after he married in 1886, his growing family of 10 children— Ella, Asa, Leo, Clo, Lio, Oto, Flo, Zio, Ojo and Geo, only five of whom lived to adulthood— by selling bowls, pitchers, mugs, jugs, and other wares door to door from a handcart. (If the man of the house was around, he also sold bawdy, anatomically suggestive pots and “brothel tokens”— ceramic coins decorated with risqué images of rabbits, jackasses, screws, and other double entendres.) When he wasn’t busy earning a living, he explored the artistic side of pottery. Working with unusually moist, sandy clay he dug from the banks of a nearby river, Ohr taught himself to make the walls of his clay pots wafer-thin and to fire them in a way that prevented them from cracking in the heat. No one quite knows how he did it; more than a century later, potters struggle to reproduce his results.

CRACK POT

Ohr’s “mud babies,” as he called his artistic pieces, were wildly unconventional. He folded, dented, ruffled, and crumpled the clay, giving his pots a very asymmetrical and offbeat appearance. Some pots drooped, as if they had melted in the sun, and others looked squashed, as if they’d been vandalized by a prankster. Others had long, winding, snakelike handles. Many pieces were purely artistic— some vases couldn’t hold flowers, and some pitchers and mugs couldn’t hold water. Others were as tiny as shot glasses.

Ohr’s choices of glazes and colors were also unconventional for the time: he mixed bright reds with dull grays, olive drab with sunny orange, and vivid blues with mustard yellows. He invented many glazes himself, and kept the formulas secret. After 1903 he used no glazes at all. “God put no color or quality in souls,” he said.

Just as wild as the pots was the way Ohr promoted them. He lived in the age of P. T. Barnum, and he displayed a similar flair for bombast. He grew a mustache that was 18 inches long from tip to tip, and he often wore it folded over his ears, with the tips tied together behind his head. He added a five-story pagoda-style tower to his pottery shop and covered it with signs that read “GREATEST POTTER ON EARTH” and “GET A BILOXI SOUVENIR BEFORE THE POTTER DIES, OR GETS A REPUTATION.” He may have even given himself the nickname “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” rather than waiting for the locals to bestow it upon him. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” he once asked a reporter. “I found out a long time ago that it paid me to act this way.”

POT HOLDER

And yet for all of Ohr’s efforts, his pots didn’t sell well at all. This was partly because they were so strange-looking: few people would have been willing to buy such oddities under the best of circumstances. But it also appears that Ohr could not bring himself to part with his creations. He charged $25 a pot, the equivalent of more than $500 today, and on those rare occasions when he actually managed to sell one, he’d often chase after the customer and try to buy the pot back. When much of downtown Biloxi was destroyed in a fire in 1894, Ohr’s studio was destroyed with it. But he couldn’t even bring himself to part with the charred, ruined pots that he rescued from the ashes. They were his “killed babies,” he said, and he couldn’t let them go. After the fire he went back to making new pots, and he couldn’t part with those, either.

NO SALE

As conflicted as Ohr was about selling his creations, he still got discouraged when people showed no interest in buying them. It grated on him that he wasn’t taken seriously as an artist. For every critic who admired his work, there were dozens who dismissed his pots as “monkey jars” that “lacked proportion” and were “distorted,” “conceited,” and “quaint.”

When Ohr sent examples of his work to museums, they were either put in storage or refused outright; when he sent eight pots to the Smithsonian Museum in 1899, they sat ignored on a shelf for 50 years. Once, when he’d suffered one rejection too many, Ohr took a bunch of his pots out into some nearby woods and buried them there. As far as anyone knows, those pots are still out there.

END OF THE ROAD

By 1910 Ohr had become so frustrated at not being taken seriously that he closed up shop and never made another pot. He turned his studio over to his sons, and after they packed up some 7,000 unsold pots and put them in a shed out back, they turned the studio into the Ohr Boys Auto Repairing Shop.

For the last eight years of his life, Ohr told anyone who’d listen that one day he’d be recognized as “the greatest art potter on earth.” But when he died from throat cancer in 1918 at the age of 60, the only people who hadn’t already forgotten him were the ones who were still laughing at him.

Ironically, it was the act of closing his pottery studio that ensured that one day his prediction would come true— that he would indeed become one of America’s most famous potters.



ROAD WARRIOR

When George Ohr died at the age of 60 in 1918, he hadn’t made a pot in nearly a decade. The thousands that he’d made but never sold were locked away in a shed behind the Ohr Boys Auto Repairing Shop. There they sat for half a century, and they might still be sitting there (or, more likely, they would have been thrown away) had a New York antiques dealer named James Carpenter not passed through town in the winter of 1968. One of Carpenter’s areas of expertise was antique automobiles, and every winter he drove through the Gulf Coast states in search of old cars and old car parts, especially Cadillacs and Ford Model Ts. On this trip his wife came with him.

The Ohr Boys shop was the oldest auto repair place in Biloxi, and looked it. Carpenter stopped in and asked Ojo Ohr, still running the place with his brothers Leo and Geo, whether they had any old parts lying around. Ojo invited Carpenter to have a look and then asked Mrs. Carpenter, “Would y’all like to see some of my daddy’s pottery?” “Sure,” she replied.

POT LUCK

James Carpenter wasn’t interested in looking at pots. Perhaps only to humor his wife, he followed her out to the shed. But as Ojo held one pot after another up to the light —“Nobody touches Daddy’s pottery!” he barked when Carpenter tried to pick one up himself— the New Yorker was astonished by the beauty and artistry of the pieces. They were similar to the ceramics of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s, but decades older.

TOUGH SELL

(Image credit: Cullen328)

Carpenter offered to buy the entire collection, on the spot, for $15,000, or about $2 a pot— the equivalent of around $8.50 a pot today. Ojo refused, but each winter, when Carpenter passed through the area looking for car parts, he dropped by the Ohr Boys Auto Repairing Shop and repeated his offer to buy the pots. Finally in 1972, the brothers agreed to sell the collection for an undisclosed sum estimated to be in the neighborhood of $50,000, or just over $7.00 a pot— about $225,000, or $ 31.50 a pot today.

In 1901 George Ohr had told an interviewer that he wanted to sell all of his pots to a single buyer so that the collection would remain intact. Seventy years later, Carpenter had indeed bought all the pots… but for the purpose of breaking up the collection and selling pots to individual collectors. In so doing, however, he helped to realize one of Ohr’s other dreams: it established Ohr’s reputation as a potter of serious artistic merit.

MAD ABOUT YOU

Carpenter sold some of the pots for as little as $40, others for as much as $1,200. Soon the pots began appearing in some of Manhattan’s most prestigious art galleries, where they fetched still higher prices. Celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Steven Spielberg collected the pots, and influential artists like Andy Warhol and the painter Jasper Johns began depicting them in their paintings. Prices for the pots climbed even higher.

During his lifetime Ohr had repeatedly tried to interest museums in his work by sending them samples, but he’d had very little success. Now, as the buzz surrounding his work continued to build, many of those same museums began acquiring Ohr’s pots for their collections— spending big money to acquire pots they’d refused to accept when Ohr offered to give them the pieces for free. The Smithsonian Institution still had its box of eight pots that Ohr sent them in 1899, but it wasn’t until 1986, nearly 90 years after receiving them, that it formally accessioned (“added”) Ohr’s work to its collection of American pottery.

MERRY POTTER

Even the citizens of Biloxi, who laughed at Ohr while he was alive, eventually came around to recognizing the genius of the Mad Potter who’d lived in their midst. In 1994 fans of his work opened the George E. Ohr Arts & Cultural Center to showcase his artistry, the only museum in America dedicated to the work of a single potter. In 2010 the center moved into a new $25 million facility designed by the architect Frank Gehry. Some 450 of Ohr’s pots are on display there, of which only about 100 are actually owned by the museum. Why so few? Partly because they don’t come on the market that often, and partly because when they do, they sell for very high prices. Today the pots that George Ohr couldn’t sell for $25 apiece in the early 1900s, and that James Carpenter paid $7 for in the early 1970s, sell for upwards of $60,000 when they come up for auction. The prices continue to climb.  



“GET A BILOXI SOUVENIR, BEFORE THE POTTER DIES, OR GETS A REPUTATION,” read one of the many signs on George Ohr’s studio at the turn of the 20th century. The locals probably laughed at the idea at the time, but nobody’s laughing anymore. More than a few people in Biloxi today wish their grandparents had heeded the Mad Potter’s warning and ponied up the $25 for a pot or two (or ten) before he “got a reputation.”

HIDING IN PLAIN $IGHT

George Ohr didn’t sell many pots during his lifetime, but he did sell some. Precisely how many is not known; estimates run as high as 500, not including the ones he buried in the woods in a fit of despair. Those, apparently, have never been found.

Many of the pots Ohr sold are likely collecting dust on their owners’ shelves, as unrecognized for their artistic (and now, financial) value as they were during the Mad Potter’s lifetime. Take a look in your attic. Are there any old clay pots that have been in the family for years— perhaps acquired by a grandparent during a swing through Mississippi? Do the pots look melted, crumpled, or squashed? Here’s a tip from Uncle John: no matter how ugly you think they are, don’t throw them away.

(YouTube link)

_______________________________

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader. The 28th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts, and comes in both the Kindle version and paper with a classy cloth cover.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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This just illustrates my disgust with modern art. Because he has a good story, this guy's art is prized as greatness, when in reality they look like failed projects by a bad potter. If I made pots like this, people would say it's horrible, but because we have an eccentric guy who's stuff was saved and 'rediscovered', it's worth money. As usual, art is about name and a good story (ala Van Gogh's ear) and what the 'prestigious art community' deems art, when it's junk. This 'art' is just as good as my failed elementary school ceramics, but the art community thinks they are so cool by 'discovering' an 'outsider artist' which they couldn't care about during his lifetime but once he died, oh, now he's a genius. How fake and phony can you get. They just want to make money off a poor dead eccentric man that would not be a thing at all if his pottery didn't survive. And just because it did survive, doesn't mean it's good.
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