Sometimes, I just have to see someone’s portrait to know that they are the person I want to write about. Today is the birthday of George E Ohr who was born in 1857 in Biloxi, Mississippi. His father was a blacksmith, his mother ran a grocery store. As you can see from the photo, he was an unusual looking fellow. George was a potter and he used to tie the ends of his eighteen inch long moustache behind his head while he worked. As you might guess from looking at him, his pots were quite unusual too. They were deliberately misshapen and he used bright glazes in unusual combinations at a time when everyone expected their pots to be brown. His boast was that he never made two things that were alike. Mostly he made his living by turning our chimney pots, planters, inkwells and little clay coins with rude messages on them. But he barely sold any of his more creative pieces. This was partly because he asked such a high price for them. People didn’t want to pay $25 for a pot that just looked as though it had gone a bit wrong. But it was also because George couldn’t bear to part with them. He was so fond of them that he called them ‘mud babies’. If he did manage to sell one, he would often chase his customer down the street and try to talk them out of their recent purchase.
George Ohr was one of five children. He described them as “a rooster, three hens and a duck”, he was the duck. At first George was apprenticed to his father as a blacksmith. But he was a restless individual and, at fourteen, he moved to New Orleans. By the time he was twenty-two, he had tried nineteen different jobs, including sailor, which he gave up after only one voyage. But then a friend offered to teach him how to make pots. He knew immediately it was the thing for him. He said “When I found the potter’s wheel I felt it all over like a wild duck in water,” which is lovely because it shows how excited he was about it. After that, he went on a two year tour of the United States, visiting potteries in sixteen states to learn all he could. In 1883, he returned to Biloxi and built his own studio, his own wheel, his own kiln, he even dug his own clay. It was pretty good clay, red in colour and he was able to use it to make pots that were wafer thin in places.
In 1884, a fire swept through the town, destroying twenty businesses including his mother’s grocery store and his studio. George raked through the ashes and recovered his pots, he kept most of them for the rest of his life, and referred to them as his ‘burned babies’. Then, he built himself a new studio. What he built was a five storey pagoda, which he painted bright pink. George knew how to draw attention to himself. He styled himself ‘The Greatest Art Potter on the Earth.’ and the ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’. He was great at self publicity, he just wasn’t very good at selling pots.
By the turn of the century, he was gaining respect for his work. People were beginning to enjoy his colourful glazes. It was around this time that he decided to stop glazing his pots. In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, he won a silver medal for his work. He didn’t sell a single pot. He later tried to sell the whole collection but no one would come up with the thousands of dollars he was asking. In 1906, he sent fifty unsolicited pieces to a museum in New Orleans and when they would only accept a dozen of them, he insisted that they were all sent back immediately. Once, he took a bag of his pots, a shovel and a lantern and buried them deep in the woods. He also made a treasure map showing their location but it has since been lost. Possibly because after he died, his son, Leo, burned all of his papers, including all his recipes for beautiful glazes, many of which cannot now be replicated. The buried pots are probably still out there somewhere.
George and his wife, Josephine, had ten children, five of whom survived to adulthood. The first two, Ella and Asa, both died young. But then George noticed that his initials. G E O, also spelled the first three letters of his first name. For some reason, he then decided to name his subsequent children: Leo, Clo, Lio, Oto, Flo, Zio, Ojo and Geo.
In 1910, he closed his pottery and he devoted the rest of his life to becoming even more eccentric. He grew his beard long as well as his moustache and would appear at the Biloxi Mardi Gras as ‘Father Time’, in long flowing robes. Or you might find him racing his motorcycle along the beach with long white hair and beard flying out behind him. His unusual demeanour and self-aggrandizing make him a sort of Dali before Dali. When interviewed in 1901 he said ‘I have a notion….that I am a mistake.’ but predicted that his work would be cherished when he was gone. He died in 1918.
He had packed away around seven thousand of his pots and his sons turned the pottery into an auto-repair shop. After languishing in his sons’ shop for around eighty years, they were discovered, quite by accident, in 1968 by a man called James Carpenter. He wanted to buy them all, but the sons wouldn’t sell. After years of negotiation, he finally persuaded them to part with them for an unknown sum, but possibly around $50,000. Gradually, Carpenter began to sell them. Artists loved them. Andy Warhol bought them,so did Jasper Johns, they appeared in his paintings. Now his work commands very high prices. Jack Nicholson and Stephen Spielberg both own pieces by Ohr. George Ohr was once asked to put a price on his work, he replied that they were “worth their weight in gold”. Now they’re probably worth more that that.
There is now a museum in Biloxi dedicated to his work. You can see a little video of it here. The sound isn’t great, but you can see more of what his work looked like. It is so much more beautiful and elegant than I imagined from the descriptions. You can also see more of his amazing portraits.