Riding the train south through the deep pine woods of Mississippi in the early 1880s, tourists to the Gulf Coast came to Biloxi for sunshine and surf. Along with its beaches, the little town had its own opera house, white streets paved with crushed oyster shells, and fine seafood. Yet back in those years, there were no casinos as there are now, and not a lot to do besides swim, stroll and eat shrimp. Then, in the 1890s, the town boasted a new tourist attraction, one based on genius or madness, depending on one’s point of view.
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Just a few blocks from shore, a five-story wooden “pagoda” labeled “BILOXI ARTPOTTERY” towered above the train tracks that ran across Delauney Street. Approaching it, a visitor saw hand-lettered signs. One read: “Get a Biloxi Souvenir, Before the Potter Dies, or Gets a Reputation.” Another proclaimed: “Unequaled unrivaled—undisputed— GREATEST ARTPOTTERON THE EARTH.” Stepping inside, a curious tourist found a studio overflowing with pots. But they were not your garden variety. These pots featured rims that had been crumpled like the edges of a burlap bag. Alongside them were pitchers that seemed deliberately twisted and vases warped as if melted in the kiln. And colors! In contrast to the boring beiges of Victorian ceramics, these works exploded with color—vivid reds juxtaposed with gunmetal grays; olive greens splattered across bright oranges; royal blues mottled on mustard yellows. The entire studio seemed like some mad potter’s hallucination, and standing in the middle of it all was the mad potter himself.
Viewed from a distance across his cluttered shop, George Ohr didn’t look mad. With his huge arms folded across his dirty apron, he looked more blacksmith than potter. But as they got a bit closer, customers could glimpse the 18-inch mustache he had wrapped around his cheeks and tied behind his head. And there was something in Ohr’s eyes—dark, piercing and wild—that suggested, at the very least, advanced eccentricity. If the pots and the man’s appearance did not prove lunacy, his prices did. He wanted $25—the equivalent of about $500 today—for a crumpled pot with wacky handles. “No two alike,” he boasted, but to most customers each looked as weird as the next. No wonder that as the new century began, thousands of the colorful, misshapen works collected dust on Ohr’s shelves, leaving the potter mad, indeed, at a world that failed to appreciate him. “I have a notion . . . that I am a mistake,” he said in an interview in 1901. Yet he predicted, “When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored, and cherished. It will come.”
Some 85 years after his death, the self-styled “Mad Potter of Biloxi” will be praised and honored as he predicted. Two years from now, Ohr’s startling ceramics will be showcased in a new $25 million Biloxi arts center designed by architect Frank O. Gehry, whose swirling silver Guggenheim Museum put Bilbao, Spain, on the cultural map. The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is named in honor of former Biloxi mayor Jeremiah O’Keefe and his late wife, Annette. Their family’s $1 million gift helped establish the museum, now housed in a small building downtown, in 1998. The new facility, scheduled to be completed in January 2006, will be nestled in a four-acre grove of live oaks overlooking the Gulf. As America’s first museum dedicated to a single potter, the complex will call attention to an art more often seen as craft. And if yet another story of “an artist ahead of his time” sounds clichéd, the resurgence of George Ohr will cap one of the art world’s most remarkable comebacks. For although his work is now in such museums as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, until the late 1970s, the only place to see an Ohr pot was in a garage behind a Biloxi auto shop—in a crate.
some are born eccentric, some achieve eccentricity and some, including certain rock stars and artists, have it thrust upon them. Evidence suggests that Ohr’s “madness” was a mix of all three. Born in Biloxi in 1857, he was the second of five children—“3 hens, 1 rooster and a duck,” he later wrote in a two-page autobiography published in a ceramics and glass journal in 1901.