Current Issue
May 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

The Mad Potter of Biloxi

Self-styled eccentric George E. Ohr's wild, weird, wonderful pots gathered dust in a garage for half a century. Now architect Frank Gehry is designing a museum dedicated to the artist who made them

Locals were not amused, and many considered their native mud dauber certifiably insane. More likely, Ohr was just ahead of his time, in promoting his work as well as crafting it. Decades before Salvador Dali began his self-aggrandizing antics, Ohr asked a reporter, “You think I am crazy don’t you?” Assuming a sober demeanor, the “mad” potter confided, “I found out a long time ago that it paid me to act this way.” It did not pay well, however. Ohr was a notoriously bad businessman. He put shockingly high prices on his favorite pots because he simply could not bear to part with them. On those rare occasions when customers paid the asking price, Ohr would chase them down Delauney Street, trying to talk them out of the purchase. Ohr didn’t seem to care that he made so little money. “Every genius is in debt,” he said.

 

By the turn of the century, Ohr had begun to get a little respect if not much success. Asurvey of ceramics published in 1901 called his body of work “in some respects, one of the most interesting in the United States.” Although Ohr exhibited his pots around the country and in Paris, the prizes always went to more traditional pottery. Ohr’s only medal, a silver for general work, came at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exhibition in St. Louis. Still, he did not sell a single piece there. Even his few admirers misunderstood him.

 

Some critics said Ohr’s “deliberately distorted” works displayed an utter lack “of good proportion, of grace, and of dignity.” When praise did come, it was more for his colors (which Ohr considered an accident enhanced by fire) than for his shapes. “Colors and Quality—counts nothing in my creations,” he fumed. “God, put no color or quality in souls.” Determined to demonstrate his forte, he began making unglazed pots with even stranger contours.

 

Looking to the future for acceptance, Ohr announced he would no longer sell his works piece by piece but would “dispose of the whole collection to one creature or one country.” If few collectors were interested in Ohr’s single pots, however, no one was interested in thousands of them, making him only more angry and determined. When a New Orleans museum accepted a mere dozen of the 50 unsolicited pieces he’d sent them, he told the curator to “send it all back immediately.” Once, in a fit of despair, he gathered a shovel, lantern and bag of pots, then hiked deep into the woods to bury his treasure like a pirate. If he left a map, it was probably burned by his son Leo, who, one evening after Ohr’s death, torched all of his father’s papers, including the secret recipes to his lovely glazes. Ohr’s buried treasure is believed to be still in the Back Bay section of town—somewhere.

 

In 1909, claiming he hadn’t sold one of his mud babies in more than 25 years, Ohr closed his shop. Though just 52, he never threw another pot. Having inherited a comfortable sum when his parents died, he devoted the rest of his life to enhancing his reputation as a loon. He let his beard grow long, and donning a flowing robe for Biloxi’s Mardi Gras, he roamed the streets as Father Time. In his final years, he could be seen racing a motorcycle on the beach, white hair and beard flying. He often spoke and wrote in a disjointed stream of consciousness: “We are living in an Age of Wheels—more wheels, and wheels within Wheels—And MACHINE ART Works—is A fake and Fraud of the deepest die.” Still confident that the time would come when his work would be recognized, Ohr died of throat cancer at age 60 in 1918. His pottery, some 7,000 pieces in crates, remained in the garage of his sons’ auto-repair shop. Every now and then, a few kids carrying BB guns would sneak in and take some pots out for target practice.

 

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus