Pastel portrait of Ohr by a Biloxi artist, Salvadore Navarro, circa 1880. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Joe Moran, Biloxi, Mississippi.
William Woodward’s “Biloxi Art Pottery,” 1890s. Oil painting. Collection of the Biloxi Public Library.
An Ohr pot. This is a good example of his glazes and his pinching and twisting techniques. Collection of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Old Capitol Museum.
George E. Ohr: America’s First Art Potter
George E. Ohr (1857-1918) has been called the first art potter in the United States, and many say the finest. Ohr was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, the son of young German immigrants, Johanna Wiedman and George Ohr. Both Alsatians, the Ohrs had moved to Biloxi after a brief stop in New Orleans, their port of entry in 1853. George Ohr Sr. established the first blacksmith shop in Biloxi and later opened the first grocery store there. His son, George Edgar Ohr, would grow up to be a flamboyant, dedicated potter and a memorable figure in his hometown.
Young George had a restless adolescence in the confusion of the post-Civil War years. After learning the blacksmith trade from his father, George Ohr at fourteen left for New Orleans, where he tried nineteen different jobs. When he was twenty-two, a boyhood friend from Biloxi, Joseph Fortuné Meyer, offered Ohr a job as an apprentice potter in New Orleans. It set the course of George Ohrs life. Ohr later wrote, When I found the potter's wheel I felt it all over like a wild duck in water.
The potter begins
After he had learned his craft, he left New Orleans for a two-year, sixteen-state tour of potteries in the United States to learn all he could about the profession. He returned to Biloxi and built his pottery shop himself. He fabricated all of the ironwork, made the potter's wheel, the kiln, rafted lumber down river, sawed it into boards, and constructed his shop. Joseph Meyer had taught him how to use the natural resources around Biloxi, how to locate and dig clay from the banks of the nearby Tchoutacabouffa River. Ohr rowed his skiff up the river, dug the clay, and floated his load back down the Tchoutacabouffa.
When his kiln and supplies were ready, he worked hard at the potters wheel producing practical items like jugs, mugs, planters, flowerpots, and water bottles. He found time to produce finer work, as well. Ohr startled the art world at the 1885 World's Fair in New Orleans with his extraordinary pots. He exhibited some six hundred pieces, which were stolen before he could get them back to Biloxi.
Mad potter of Biloxi
One good outcome of the Worlds Fair was his courtship and marriage
to a young German woman whom he had met in New Orleans, Josephine Gehring.
Soon afterwards, Meyer again invited Ohr to work with him at the newly
created New Orleans Art Pottery. For two years, 1888 to 1890, Ohr worked
in New Orleans throwing huge garden pots. His work was competently done
but with no hint of his later virtuosity in creating delicate, imaginative
After the New Orleans Art Pottery went out of business, Ohr returned
to Biloxi and again went into serious production for himself. Biloxi Art
and Novelty Pottery, as he called his pink shop, in no time was crammed
with vessels of all shapes, sizes, and decorations, rustic, ornamental,
new and ancient shaped vases, etc. As he created his pots, he also
created himself. Ohr presented himself as a wildly eccentric person
brash, mischievous, wearing flowing beard and hair, and hooking his moustache
over his ears. He gave his business a carnival atmosphere.
Creating exotic forms
His cups and saucers, plaques of local sites, Mississippi mule ink wells,
tiny artist pallets, puzzle mugs, and molded souvenirs of all kinds, were
popular with tourists and local residents. But his extraordinary skill
at the potter's wheel making his artware brought him to the attention
of the ceramic art world. Ohr threw extremely delicate, thin-walled pots
which he manipulated into exotic forms by twisting, denting, ruffling,
and folding the clay into vases, no two alike. He said in
an interview, I brood over [each pot] with the same tenderness a
mortal child awakens in its parent.
Cited as a genius
The 1904 Louisiana Purchase International Exposition was both a triumph
and a disaster for Ohr. He won a Silver Medal for the most original art
pottery. He displayed several hundred of his finest pieces and sold nothing.
No one would pay the prices he demanded. Nonetheless his virtuosity in
throwing pots and his glazes were admired by ceramic critics and potters.
He was called one of the most interesting potters in the United
States in the April 1899 edition of the journal China, Glass,
and Pottery Review. In lectures at Alfred University in New York,
the famous ceramics teacher Charles Binns cited Ohr as a genius. Still,
Ohrs refusal to sell his fine pieces at attractive prices prohibited
him from the recognition and success for which he longed.
Acclaim, at last
The artistic acclaim that he had envisioned came fifty years after his
death. In 1968, James W. Carpenter, an antiques dealer from New Jersey
looking for old cars, happened upon the crates of pots stored in the Ohr
Boys' Auto Repair Shop. He subsequently bought the entire cache of 6,000
pieces for $50,000. As the pots began to come on the market, art pottery
collectors were intrigued, art historians began to re-evaluate his importance,
and his pots began to sell for thousands of dollars.
Patti Carr Black is the author of Art in Mississippi (1720-1980)
from which this article is adapted. Art in Mississippi, copublished
by the Mississippi Historical Society, the Mississippi Department of Archives
and History, and the University Press of Mississippi, is the first book
in the Societys Heritage of Mississippi Series. Black is the former
director of the Old Capitol Museum, Mississippi Department of Archives
Posted May 2002
Patti Carr Black , ed., The Biloxi Art Pottery of George Ohr (Jackson, Mississippi Department of Archives and History 1978)
Garth Clark, ed., The Mad Potter of Biloxi: The Art and Life of George E. Ohr (New York, Abbeville Press, 1989)
Eugene Hecht, No Two Alike: the Legacy of George E. Ohr, the Mad Potter of Biloxi (1994)
Gulf Coast Historical and Humanities Conference, Threads of Tradition and Culture along the Gulf Coast, 1986.
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