George E. Ohr

Garth Clark

Garth Clark Furniture & Decorative Arts

In 1893, in the small town of Biloxi, Mississippi, George E. Ohr’s Biloxi Art Pottery burned down. In common with all calamities of this kind it must have caused considerable disruption and financial distress to the victim, but a propitious effect was to ignite a smoldering radicalism in Ohr, who thereafter began to produce some of the most inventive pottery of modern times.

Pot made by George E. Ohr (1857-1918), Biloxi, Mississippi. Glazed earthenware; height 4 ¾ inches. The examples of Ohr’s work illustrated here all were made c. 1883-before 1909. Collection of Charles Cowles; except as noted, photographs are by John White.

His work anticipated the direction that American ceramics have taken in our day, for the ideas he explored so freely in his pottery at the turn of the century resurfaced in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He also anticipated some of the concerns that emerged in early modern art, particularly in the objects made by the Dadaists and surrealists between 1918 and 1942.

Although his work went largely unrecognized for more than half a century, in the past ten years Ohr has become one of the most celebrated artists of the arts and crafts era and his works are avidly collected.

Ohr’s work has particularly appealed to the dealers Charles Cowles and Irving Blum as well as to Mr. and Mrs. Carl Lobell, collectors who specialize in early American modernist painting, and Jasper Johns, who last year paid sensitive homage to Ohr by using the Ohr pots from his own collection as central images in his exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City (see image below).

Ventriloquist, by Jasper Johns (b. 1930), 1983. Signed and dated “J. JOHNS1983” at lower left. Encaustic on canvas, 75 by 50 inches. Some of the Ohr pots in Johns’s collection have been here rendered with what John Russell in The New York Times called “a touching fidelity.”

Earlier this year the art critic John Perreault confirmed Ohr’s status in this country:

…look at each vessel, carefully, sensing how it would feel to move the clay in these ways; look at each vessel as a sculpture occupying space and time; look at each vessel as a painting. Then see all these things simultaneously, along with the wit¬-handles stuck here and there, the elegant accidents, the crush and twist. Gorge Ohr is a great artist. 1

Ohr was an unlikely candidate for leadership of the ceramic avant-garde. Unlike most artists of his day, who came from reasonably genteel and middle-class backgrounds, Ohr was the son of a Biloxi blacksmith. He received little formal education and none in the liberal arts. At first he was apprenticed to his father, but their working relationship proved stormy as George, always the prankster, was constantly “running away from danger and getting caught with open arms every time,” 2 as he himself put it.

In 1879, after three years of working for a ship chandler in New Orleans, Joseph Fortune Meyer (c. 1848 -1931), a family friend, offered to take on the wild twenty-two-year-old as an apprentice in his New Orleans pottery. For Ohr this represented the opportunity to earn ten dollars a month and “the chance to swipe a trade.”

Ohr joined Meyer (later renowned as the main potter for the Newcomb College Pottery in New Orleans) but remained only long enough to learn “how to boss a little piece of clay into a gallon jug” and then left on a two-year trip through sixteen states during which he “sized up every potter and pottery … and never missed a shop window, illustration or literary dab on ceramics since that time, 1881.”

In 1883 Ohr returned to Biloxi and set about building his own pottery with a capital of $26.80. As a blacksmith he was able to make his own potter’s wheel and clay mill. He sawed pine trees, rafted them eighteen miles down the Tchoutacabouffa River to Biloxi, and singlehandedly built the pottery buildings. Then “like a mud wasp” he fashioned his kiln of “lime and grit and credit.”As soon as the pottery was complete, Ohr began to make objects for the 1884 -1885 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. It cost him his entire savings to turn up at the fair with six hundred pots, “no two alike.” His wares and stand were carted away by a bogus shipper and Ohr lost all his stock. In those difficult early days had it not been for the “housewives of Biloxi who have a constant need of flower pots, water coolers and flues,” the pottery, or “Pot-Ohr-Ree,” as he preferred to describe it, would not have survived.Included in his early work were decorative slipcast pitchers with relief decoration showing river boats and other local scenes. He seemed to use the potter’s wheel mainly to produce the functional items that were his mainstay. He was, however, entranced by the wheel itself, recalling that the first time he worked at one he “felt it all over like a wild duck in water.” He developed extraordinary dexterity and became quite famous for the tricks he performed on the wheel at various fairs as a sales promotion device.

Of Ohr’s throwing skills Paul E.Cox wrote:

It is said that Ohr could work on the wheel whichever way it turned. Certainly he could throw wares of considerable size with walls much thinner than any other potter ever has accomplished. It is quite probable that George Ohr, rated simply as a mechanic, was the most expert thrower the craft has ever known. 3

Most of 1894 was spent building a new pottery after the fire, and it was not until 1895 that Ohr’s first mature works appeared. By 1986 his shelves were lined with thousands of pots in his new style. They were magical clay structures, paper thin and then manipulated in the most plastic and imaginative manner. Edges were folded, ruffled, wrinkled, pinched, and re-formed into every conceivable shape. Pots were twisted at their necks or shoulders so that they collapsed into a series of rhythmic pleats with tendril-like handles.

Decades later Jean Cocteau said of the doves that Picasso had fashioned in the late 1940’s by twisting and folding thrown clay, “you wring their necks and give them life!” 4 The same paradox is true in Ohr’s pots. All the distortions, the pummeling, tearing, folding, and other violence to beautiful vessels in the classical sense only enhance their sense of life and animation.

Pot made by Ohr. Glazed earthenware; height 4 inches. Johnson and Wirtz collection.

When Ohr began to experiment with glazes he produced a clear lead glaze or a smoky black, metallic glaze, but he soon graduated to a most extravagant range of polychromatic glazes. In general, the techniques he employed seemed to derive mainly from the three-color glazing techniques of the Chinese potters of the T’ang dynasty or from the related glazing of American spatterware. Interestingly, the work of French mannerist potter Bernard Palissy (c. 1510 – c. 1590) appears also to have played a role, as we shall later explore.
Ironically, Ohr came to regret his success as a master of glazes. The opinion of the ceramics historian Edwin Atlee Barber that “the principal beauty of the ware lies in the richness of his glazes” 5 is typical of the response to Ohr in his day. The dismissal of his forms as eccentric wounded Ohr, who correctly believed form to be his primary statement. To underscore his anger, the potter once scribbled across a photograph of a group of his unglazed wares, “Colors and quality counts nothing in my creations….God put no color or quality in souls.”

Even today the obsession with colored glazes continues amongst collectors of Ohr’s work, although the forms are now equally admired. Writers such as Eugene Hecht have tried to draw attention to the fact that Ohr’s biscuit pots were not simply pots that failed to make the trip to the glaze bucket but in many cases were never intended to be glazed. The demand for the more lavish glazes today, however, has motivated counterfeiters to glaze Ohr’s biscuit pots, usually with muddy and appallingly vulgar glazes, and then sell them as Ohr’s original work. However, almost all the glazed pots by counterfeiters have a perfectly clean bisque base, whereas the bottoms of most of Ohr’s glazed pots are also glazed and are somewhat messy.

Although potting was Ohr’s central obsession, he also indulged in bizarre photographs of himself and his family. A particularly interesting one appears to have been taken after the fire that destroyed his pottery in 1893. Ohr placed each of his children inside one of his “clay babies,” as he referred to his pots, and made a large clay eggshell for one of the children’s doll. In so doing Ohr was making a symbolic statement linking potting to divine creation. His insistence that no two pots should be alike was derived from his profound belief in the individual. God created no two people totally alike and Ohr would accept no other standard. In Ohr’s willful individualism we see more than a trace of kindred spirits such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman.

George Ohr mugging for the camera, as he was fond of doing. Collection of the author.

Ohr seems to have been known as a character in arts and crafts circles at the turn of the century. A discerning few saw him as something more than a Southern eccentric, but he did not come from the correct social stratum nor did he acquire the necessary veneer of education and refinement to be accepted by the luminaries of the arts and crafts movement. His theatrical self-promotion, which entailed posting signs at fairs declaring that he was “The Greatest Art Potter on Earth,” did not sit well with his more august contemporaries.
Frederick Hurten Rhead, an English potter who had moved to the United States and had assumed the role of commentator on the ceramic arts, rendered a typical judgment when he wrote:

Ohr, really a most skillful thrower… who was concerned only with regard to his personal reputation. Entirely without art training and altogether lacking in taste, he deliberately distorted every pot he made in order to be violently different from any other potter. 6

William Percival Jervis, writing in 1902, belittled Ohr’s achievement in a mordant passage that concludes,

Mr Ohr with unbounded confidence in his own genius is laying up at Biloxi a vast store of ware in the hopes that it may be purchased entire by the nation as an example of his prowess. Did we but accept him at his own estimate he is not only the foremost potter in America but the whole world. He said so and he ought to know. 7

A few critics responded more positively and intelligently. Charles Fergus Binns, the founding director of the New York State College for Clayworking and Ceramics in Alfred, is said to have been one of his defenders, and in 1902 Edwin Barber wrote:

In a single small kiln, without assistance in the manifold labors incident to the preparation of the clay, the throwing of the pieces, the glazing and the firing, Mr. Ohr has developed an original ware which has attracted the attention of the world of art. 8

Another of Ohr’s defenders, William A. King, wrote in 1900 that “there is art – real art – in the Biloxian’s pottery.” 9

After the fire of 1893, in addition to a radical shift in forms and glazing techniques, Ohr also began to exhibit an eccentric attitude toward the sale of his wares. Convinced that his entire production would be bought by the nation, he frequently refused to part his vessels, although he did make gimcracks and somewhat lewd novelties which he sold at fairs. About 1904 he inherited some money from his father, and sometimes between 1906 and 1909 he ceased working as a potter. He acquired a Thor motorcycle for his own pleasure and assisted his son Leo in his Cadillac dealership. When Ohr died in 1918 more than seven thousand pots, the major part of his mature production, lay forgotten in the family warehouse.

Three-handled mug made by Ohr. Glazed earthenware; height 8 inches. Collection of Jasper Johns.

In 1967 James W. Carpenter, an antique dealer from upstate New York, stumbled on the cache, which he acquired in 1972 for a rumored $50,000. Carpenter commissioned a monograph, 10 and virtually overnight the historians of the arts and crafts movement had to re-evaluate Ohr and his contribution.
The re-evaluation was not entirely positive. As late as 1978 J. Jefferson Miller III, then the curator of ceramics at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., tried to discourage me from including Ohr in the exhibition A Century of Ceramics in the United States on the grounds that it would be “embarrassing” to the American decorative arts. “You may think Ohr is an artist,” he told me, “but we think he is just plain hokey!”

However, many of Ohr’s detractors in the 1970’s are his firmest allies today. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as well as the finest private collections of arts and crafts and modern art in the country now have works by Ohr. The wave of enthusiasm sparked off more by the bizarre portraits of the man and his way of life has now been replaced by a more intense interest in the aesthetic qualities of his work.

Edges were folded, ruffled, wrinkled, pinched, and re-formed into every conceivable shape. Pots were twisted at their necks or shoulders so that they collapsed into a series of rhythmic pleats with tendril-like handles.

Two-handled vase. Glazed earthenware; height 7 ½ inches. Lobell collection.

In tracing the origins of Ohr’s forms, one of the most promising and at the same time baffling leads appears to be his interest in and identification with Palissy. Ohr called himself the “second Palissy,” 11 and indeed the two potters were similar in many ways. Both were known for eccentric behavior, both were deeply religious, and both created important, innovative ceramic art.
Palissy was notorious for firing his kiln with furniture from his house when he ran out of other fuel. One night his wife awoke to find him tearing the bedroom doors off their hinges – Palissy was firing again! Eventually his experiments paid off and he went on to create one of the most important bodies of pottery of the Renaissance.
A writer for The Clay-Worker in 1905 saw Ohr’s spiritual connection with Palissy when she wrote:

With his own hands he fired the kiln, using wood for the purpose; one can easily imagine that, like Palissy, if his wood and money ran short at a critical moment in the firing, he might be capable of breaking up his furniture to keep up the fire. 12

However, after a tour of the vaults of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art it became clear to me that there must have been a more concrete connection between the two potters. Peter Fusco, then curator of decorative arts at the museum, had just acquired a group of Palissy wares and a single Ohr vase, and I found to my surprise that the dappled, multihued bottoms of the Palissy pots were strikingly similar to the bottom of the Ohr pot. I began to see other similarities in Ohr’s relief-modeled pitchers and his penchant for lizards, snakes, and other reptiles. The visual clues began to accumulate, and although Ohr’s debt to Picassy is only conjectural at this point, the evidence does seem to point to a more deliberate involvement by Ohr in the aesthetic example of Palissy than has previously been thought.

Parallels with other pottery abound. Ohr’s teapots have the general stance and tensely drawn spouts and handles of Whieldon and Wedgwood wares of the mid-eighteenth century (where similar multicolor glazing was also popular). Some ruffled vessels are very close to ninth-century Chinese proto-yue funerary urns. In the late nineteenth century some potters played with ruffled and pummeled forms, notably Martin Brothers in London between 1890 and 1904 and workers at the Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati after 1880. It is also possible that Ohr’s inspiration for ruffling and folding came more from Victorian glass, where these techniques were much used, although in an effetely decorative manner.

Teapot made by Ohr. Glazed earthenware; height 6 ½ inches. Kolodny collection

Now, sixty-seven years after his death, Ohr is acknowledged to be the great artist he always knew himself to be. In his time he was treated as a folk curiosity, although we have reason to believe that he used his bizarre behavior as a defense against the indifference and misunderstanding with which most people regarded his work. A clue to this can be found in an extremely poignant letter from Paul Cox to Robert W. Blasberg describing an interview between Cox and Ohr:

He sat on the edge of the bed blinking his black eyes at me. Finally he said, “You think I am crazy don’t you?” I replied that Meyer had told me about him and that I did not think he was crazy. (I still don’t.) With that George stopped his act and remarked, “I found out a long time ago that it paid me to act this way.” 13

The letter offers an intimate glimpse of the artist and the mask he wore. This country buffoon was the same man who had the artistic integrity to refuse to sell his work in his lifetime, knowing that appreciation for it would have to await a later generation with the sophistication to understand his art. He was a sensitive and committed artist who played the jester while feeling the hurt and frustration of being rejected. He left us a wonderful legacy. Compared to the perfect and sterile works by some of his contemporaries, he showed us that a tour de force of craftsmanship has no value by itself unless it can be matched by an equal tour de force of spirit.

GARTH CLARK is a historian of twentieth-century ceramics and a dealer in contemporary ceramics. He is currently at work on his sixth book, which will be about the life and works of George Ohr. 1 Village Voice, March 5, 1985

2 George E. Ohr, “Some Facts in the History of a Unique Personality,” Crockery and Glass Journal, vol. 54 (December 1901), pp. 123-125. All statements by Ohr in this article that are otherwise unascribed are from this article.

3 Ceramic Age, vol. 25 (April 1935), p. 140, quoted in Art Pottery of the United States, An Encyclopedia of Producers and Their Marks (New York, 1974), p.30.

4 Quoted in Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, Pablo Picasso – Ceramic (Hanover, West Germany, 1958), p. 6.

5 The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States (New York, 1902), p. 498.

6 Quoted in Paul Evans, “Reflections of Frederick Hurten Rhead,” Pottery Collectors Newsletter, vol. 9 (September-October 1980), p. 45.

7 The Encyclopedia of Ceramics (New York, 1902), p. 420.

8 Pottery and Porcelain of the United States, p. 498.

9 “Ceramic Art at the Pan American Exhibition,” Crockery and Glass Journal, vol. 53 (May 1901), p. 29.

10 This book is Robert W. Blasberg, George E. Ohr and His Biloxi Art Pottery (Port Jervis, New York, 1973).

11 Quoted in King, “Ceramic Art at the Pan American Exhibition,” p. 29.

12 Ethel Hutson, “Quaint Biloxi Pottery,” The Clay-Worker, vol. 44 (September 1905), p. 226.

13 Quoted in Blasberg, George E. Ohr, p. 21.