Wednesday, May 16, 2018

George Ohr—Just a Little Bit Eccentric

QUESTION: On a recent trip to New Orleans, I found and bought a quirky piece of art pottery in an antique shop. The dealer said it was by George Ohr, but I’ve never heard of him. I like the bizarre look this piece has and would like to find more. Can you tell me more about this potter?

ANSWER: George Ohr was a local potter that actually hailed from Biloxi, Mississippi. He was a real character and his personality definitely comes through in his pots.

In the early 1850s, Ohr’s parents moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where his father opened the town’s first blacksmith shop. George worked with him and learned the trade. But when he was 18, Ohr left to seek his fortune in New Orleans.  There he worked at a ship chandler's shop for free room and board plus soap for washing. After three years, he was still getting free soap and only $15 per month. So he went back home to Biloxi where he worked as an apprentice in a file cutter's shop and in a tinker's shop.

Disenchanted with his situation, he returned to New Orleans to learn all he could about potting. As soon as he mastered enough technical skills, Ohr left and spent two years traveling to 16 states to observe other potters and their potteries.

He returned to Biloxi in 1883 with $26.80 with which he equipped his own pottery. He spent most of the money on bricks for his kiln. He did all his own work—digging the clay from a nearby riverbank, loading it in a wheelbarrow, and hauling it back to his shop, which he called the "POT-OHR-E." He called his creations "mud babies" and made over 600 pieces in his first  year. He exhibited some of them at the North Cotton Centennial Exposition, but someone stole them.

On Sept. 15, 1886 Ohr married Josephine Gehring of New Orleans. They had 10 children, but the first two died very young. To support his family, he began selling novelty pottery and souvenir items, such as flowerpots, ceramic hats, children's banks and plaques of Southern buildings at local fairs. He once said that if it weren’t for the housewives of Biloxi who have a constant need of flowerpots, water coolers and flues, the Ohr family would go hungry. Ohr hated to part with his "mud baby" creations, so he put high prices on his best works to see what the market would bear.

It didn't take Ohr long to get the reputation of being just a little bit eccentric. People began calling him “the made potter from Biloxi.” This was in part due to his bizarre appearance. Ohr had long hair that he knotted on top of his head with a brass pin and a long beard that was usually tucked into his shirt to keep it from getting caught in the potter's wheel. He often made a public spectacle of himself—from boasting about his artistic talents to zooming down the street on his bicycle with his 18-inch-long mustache tucked behind his ears. Ohr admitted that he acted "crazy" to attract tourists to his shop.

Although Ohr won a medal at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, he became disillusioned with the pottery business because he didn't think people appreciated his work. So he abruptly closed his pottery in 1906 and became a motorcycle salesman and then an automobile dealer. Ohr died in 1918, still convinced he was the greatest potter who ever lived. He left his pottery to his children with the request that it not be sold until 50 years after his death. He believed the originality of his work would be appreciated in time.

In 1968, exactly 50 years after Ohr's death, James W. Carpenter, a New Jersey antique dealer, discovered over 7,000 pieces of Ohr's pottery in the attic of the Ohr Boy's Auto Repair Shop. He purchased all of them from Ohr's children and offered it for sale in the New York area. People soon recognized these works of an obscure turn-of-the-century potter as the creation of a genius ahead of his time and not just the works of "the mad potter of Biloxi."

Each piece of pottery created by George Ohr is totally unique. Although he made the usual bowls, vases, mugs, pitchers and teapots, no two were alike in shape or decoration. Ohr had a mischievous nature and enjoyed making unusual forms as well, such as puzzle cups for which the puzzle was how to drink from it without spilling the contents. He made a coffeepot with a lid that couldn’t be removed. The trick was to fill it from the bottom.

Some of Ohr's work showed the Art Nouveau influence of the time. He applied snakes, crabs, seashells, dragons and even the head of a wildcat. Today, these pieces sell for high prices.

Ohr was an expert on the potter’s wheel. He created eggshell-thin vessels of fine quality but wasn’t satisfied with their static quality. He dug his fingers into the moist clay and twisted, dented, pinched, squeezed and generally "tortured" the white and red local clays into amazing one-of-a-kind forms. Ohr designed his elaborate handles with curves and scrolls in the style of wrought iron, influenced by his work with his father as a blacksmith.

Ohr’s glazes, in deep and lustrous in shades of brown, red, bright pink, purple, cobalt blue, yellow and green luster, were as varied as his pottery forms. His colors were Many objects had a gunmetal or pewter finish. He experimented with volcanic, sponged, drip, blister, iridescent, tortoiseshell and pigeon feather glazes. And on some of his pieces, he flawed or sometimes even burned his glazes.

As he got older, he left his works in the unglazed bisque stage. He believed God put no color on souls, so why should he put color on his pots.

It wasn’t until Carpenter put the pieces he discovered up for sale in the 1970s that Ohr’s work found a market, and it was his bisque pieces that got the highest prices. It seems that some of the buyers then glazed these pieces in order to earn more money from resale.

Today, collectors seek Ohr’s twisted, tortured forms and colorful vibrant glazes. It’s what he would have wanted when he was making them.

To read more articles on antiques, please visit the Antiques Article section of my site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," online now.  

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