Some people are so far ahead of their time that it takes a long time for the rest of the world to catch up to them. It took the world more than 50 years to catch up to “The Mad Potter” — George E. Ohr — and in some ways, it is still trying to.
As is the case with many brilliantly creative people, the work of this innovative Arts and Crafts ceramics artist of Biloxi, Mississippi, was not appreciated in his own time. Although this disappointed him enough to eventually stop creating pottery, Ohr boldly predicted two big things: his work would become highly valued as art by a later generation, and the nation would build a temple to his genius. He was right about both. It just took awhile to get there.
Ohr would likely be quite happy to know that some of his pieces have sold for six figures, including one of his large and exceptional vessels that sold at auction earlier this year.
A passionate Ohr connoisseur, David Rago, whose Rago Arts and Auction Center sold the $100,000 vessel in January, wasn’t expecting it to blow way past its estimate of $20,000-$30,000, but it’s a standout piece. It came close to beating the auction record currently held by Sotheby’s for a piece that sold for $125,000 more than 10 years ago. (More results from the January auction at Rago can be found here.)
“I was certainly surprised it brought that much, but it was special in ways I initially didn’t understand,” said Rago. “Two nights before the sale, we had a lecture at the auction hall on Ohr and were shown a period photo of him standing next to the pot, which was on the floor by his foot. No one had seen this pot in nearly half a century except in that photo, so the fact that it was finally coming to the market proved rather exciting. It is also very large, and extremely assertive, even for George Ohr,” said Rago.
Rago, who has been a preeminent expert in the field of American ceramics and art pottery for more than five decades, said he has had the great fortune of seeing so much of Ohr’s work since the 1970s. He has also written a personal essay about Ohr published in the book, George Ohr: The Greatest Art Potter on Earth (Rizzoli, 2013).
“The odd thing is, because Ohr’s pottery was so profoundly weird, not much of it was sold in his lifetime. It’s very fragile and, had it been distributed, much would have been lost or broken. The number of pieces he made that survived is about 10,000, which is a lot,” he said.
Despite his pottery not selling, Rago has a hunch as to why Ohr was still so passionately driven to keep creating during his most prolific years.
“Sometimes you’re born to do something, one thing, and you chase it to the end. I remember the first time I saw a piece of art pottery, when my parents started collecting Roseville. I was 17 and it was as though a switch inside me was flipped. I’m not an artist, but I understand predestination, and I think Ohr operated as such,” he said.
“When I found the potter’s wheel, I felt it all over like a wild duck in water.”
Ohr was born in Biloxi in 1857 to German immigrants. His father was a blacksmith and his mother ran a grocery store. He spent time blacksmithing as an assistant in his father’s shop, but working in that profession full time did not interest him; nor did any other of the dozen short-lived pursuits he tried, including apprenticing as a file cutter and a tinker, seafaring and working on the docks.
Ohr finally discovered his life’s calling at 22, after a family friend invited him to join his pottery business in New Orleans. After learning to throw pots there, Ohr furthered his knowledge of ceramics by traveling to potteries throughout the states in the 1880s.
“When I found the potter’s wheel, I felt it all over like a wild duck in water,” Ohr said in a two-page autobiography published in a ceramics and glass journal in 1901 and preserved by Smithsonian Magazine. “After knowing how to boss a little piece of clay into a gallon jug, I pulled out of New Orleans and took a zigzag trip for two years, and got as far as Dubuque, Milwaukee, Albany, down the Hudson, and zigzag back home. I sized up every potter and pottery in 16 states, and never missed a show window, illustration or literary dab on ceramics since that time, 1881.”
When Ohr returned to Biloxi in 1883, he built a pottery shop, even crafting his own wheel and kiln, all for $26.80. Unlike other potters, Ohr was involved in every part of the manufacturing process — from digging the red clay along the banks of the Tchoutacabouffa River to throwing, decorating and firing the pots.
“Personality in every jar and jug.”
Ohr found art in that Mississippi mud, and holding it in his hands, he was able to make magic with it, creating pottery that was paper thin and had a delicacy that no one else has ever equaled. And creating pieces that no one had ever seen. While many of his peers had begun emulating the style and techniques of Japanese and French pottery, Ohr was a wizard at the potter’s wheel and invented his own wildly unconventional technique, which remains a mystery to this day. He manipulated that wet clay into bowls with crumpled rims, vases with long serpentine handles, pitchers that were folded, and other pieces that looked like they had been squished. He also made unconventional choices with the colors and glazes he used, mixing dull hues like gray and olive drab with vivid reds and sunny orange. He invented many of his glazes himself with a formula that he kept secret. After 1903, he used no glazes at all.
Ohr lived by a simply credo: “God made no two souls alike, and I’ll make no two pots alike.”
Because of this, Rago said, “When you see his work, you never know what you’re going to get. When you handle enough of it, you can see how he was thinking some of the time, how certain glaze batches corresponded to certain clay manipulations, like Ohr was working through something that day or that week, and each subsequent piece is the manifestation of a deeper idea coming out of his brain and working through his hands. His work is more than just interesting. It can be quite challenging intellectually.
“I think, as a whole, the diversity he achieved through his entire body of work is quite amazing. That he did this in a small southern town, and remained mostly unknown through his lifetime and beyond, is significant. Before he really began potting, he traveled to see what was being produced by other major studio potteries in the U.S., so he was not uninformed. But then, what he created, was as though a Martian came down here and produced art.”
His work is more than just interesting. It can be quite challenging intellectually. - David Rago
At first, however, there was nothing that special about Ohr’s pottery. When he started, he was more concerned with supporting his wife and their ten children and he made utilitarian ware and novelties to sell including puzzle mugs, flower pots, planters, water jugs, and ordinary pitchers.
It was in his spare time that Ohr started experimenting and putting “personality in every jar and jug,” which was no empty boast, given the eccentric shapes and color combinations aforementioned. He called these pieces his “mud babies” and brooded over them “with the same tenderness a mortal child awakens in its parents,” he wrote. He took his mud babies to exhibitions in New Orleans and Chicago, but they sold poorly.
“Greatest art potter on earth.”
On October 12, 1894, a fire ripped through Biloxi and destroyed Ohr’s studio and the majority of his work. He kept the pieces that he dug out of the ashes, the “burned babies,” for the rest of his life. When once asked why, he said, “Did you ever hear of a mother so inhuman that she would cast off her deformed child?”
The fire drove Ohr’s creativity further. He got a loan to rebuild his shop and made new pottery as distinctive as he was. From 1895-1905, Ohr worked behind the pottery wheel at a frenzied pace, producing the art for which he is known today. The variety and number of pieces he created during this decade was in the thousands and these are the creations that are now in private collections and museums.
“I am the apostle of individuality,” he said, “the brother of the human race, but I must be myself and I want every vase of mine to be itself.”
By this time, Ohr and his five-story wooden “pagoda” that he named Biloxi Art Pottery had become an attraction for tourists passing through the seaside town. The self-styled “Mad Potter of Biloxi” had also stepped up his self-promotion and no doubt his almost PT Barnum-like method and the clever and humorous signs for “Pot-Ohr-E” drew them in: “GET A BILOXI SOUVENIR BEFORE THE POTTER DIES, OR GETS A REPUTATION”; “GREATEST ART POTTER ON EARTH, ‘YOU’ PROVE THE CONTRARY”; “The potter said 2 the clay ‘be, ware’ and it was.”
Tourists would gawk at his pottery, and at Ohr himself, who, if not outright a little mad, at least looked the part, with his intense, piercing eyes and eccentric grooming habits. He arranged his hair into unusual styles and twisted his epically long mustache behind his ears or tied it behind his head.
“He looked odd, made odd pots, and tried to sell them to support his family. The Mad Potter of Biloxi act probably wasn’t entirely an act, but what little he did sell probably was a result of that,” Rago said.
“When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored, and cherished. It will come.”
“No two alike,” Ohr boasted of his works, but to most customers, each piece looked as odd as the next. No one was buying, so around 1910, Ohr packed up his thousands of unsold and unappreciated pieces and after his death in 1918, they sat in storage, abandoned and collecting dust.
“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.”
This first prediction came true in 1968, 50 years after his death. By that time, Ohr’s disassembled studio had been operating for years as the family’s automobile repair shop. James Carpenter, a barber from New Jersey who also dabbled in antiques, was traveling through the south on a routine hunting trip for antique cars and auto parts. He eventually came upon the Ohrs’ Biloxi homestead and auto junkyard business — along with the family’s vast inventory of the eccentric pottery.
Seeing an opportunity, Carpenter made the Ohrs an offer for the whole lot, but the brothers passed. They also refused his few subsequent offers. Finally, in 1972, the family relented and sold the collection for somewhere in the vicinity of $100,000, according to Ohr family oral history. Carpenter personally hauled the cache of some 10,000 pieces — an assortment of masterpieces, knickknacks, and everything between — back to New Jersey with him.
Ohr’s eccentric and novel works, largely dismissed during his own lifetime, started gaining appreciation — and buyers. Rago was there for it and has known and worked with Carpenter for around 50 years. He said Carpenter deserves credit for patiently introducing Ohr’s work into Manhattan’s burgeoning art-pottery market during the 1970s and ’80s. Soon the pots began appearing in some of Manhattan’s most prestigious art galleries, where they fetched high prices. Celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Steven Spielberg reportedly collected the pots, as did influential artists like Andy Warhol. Prices climbed even higher.
The $100,000 vessel that Rago recently sold came from Carpenter’s collection.
“Ninety-five percent of the Ohr that survived came through James Carpenter so, while that is great provenance, it would take more than that to boost a price to such a degree. What I will say is that, with all the fake Ohr that has been produced over the decades — at least four variations of fakes that I have seen and handled —genuine Carpenter provenance establishes authenticity, at the very least,” said Rago.
In addition to the vessel, the auction house sold 28 other Ohr pieces, with all but two selling over their high estimates — and in most cases, by thousands of dollars. Rago said these results are the exception, though.
“First, the occasion was special in that 80 percent of the pieces came from a single collector and I was allowed to price them somewhat conservatively (though, not cheaply). Further, they had been off the market for decades, mostly purchased from my auctions in the ’80s and ’90s, so they were good pieces, with conservative estimates, guaranteed to be authentic and there was plenty of it. Such details created something of a perfect storm, and the market responded accordingly,” he said. “That said, there has been growing heat under the Ohr market since there are so many newer buyers from around the world. And these newer buyers are collectors of art, rather than pottery collectors or Arts and Crafts-era collectors. They see Ohr in a different light, a genius who chose to work with clay rather than paint a canvas or sculpt in bronze.”
As for the current market for Ohr’s work, Rago noted that prices are rising, though not dramatically, and that one successful auction is not a true test of the market.
“We have seen increases in the past two years of about 20 percent,” Rago said. “It is important to note that Ohr prices were higher than they are now fifteen years ago.” Although Sotheby’s holds the auction record for that $125,000 piece, he noted that he has sold pieces privately for more than that.
Rago said it’s worth pointing out that there is a lot of fake Ohr being sold, mostly at on-line sites and smaller auctions, and noted that he recently took in a collection of five pieces of Ohr and three of them were fake and returned to the seller. “Most sellers don’t know the real from the fake, some of which can be very convincing, if you don’t know the material well.”
There is no shortcut to determine if a piece of Ohr is fake. The way to know a fake is to know his work, so anyone serious about collecting the potter’s pieces needs to be serious about putting in the time to research, and also buy from people who are known experts.
“Eventually the nation will build a temple to my genius.”
Ohr has been quoted saying this and although it was perhaps laughable at the time, this second prediction of his came true 92 years after he died underappreciated. In 2010, Biloxi opened a museum to him, a $40 million Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, a cluster of silver pods overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The museum is also named for Annette O’Keefe, the late wife of former Biloxi mayor Jeremiah O’Keefe, Sr., who was instrumental in donating money and raising funds for its completion.
The museum was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, whose whimsical designs including the iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.
Rago has seen at least half of Ohr’s 10,000 surviving pieces between going to visit Carpenter, seeing the collections of friends, and having sold several thousand through auction or in private placement.
“You have to see it and handle it to understand how significant an artist Ohr was,” Rago said. “We have this prevailing mentality in the West that, if it’s not on a canvas or made of bronze, it can’t be high art. Ohr is an outlier, and once his work, his personality, gets under your skin, it’s hard to shake him loose.”
For more information about Ohr's life and to see more of his work, visit the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art.