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George Ohr

George Ohr: Sophisticate and Rube

Ellen J. Lippert
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    George Ohr
    Book Description:

    The late nineteenth-century Biloxi potter, George Ohr, was considered an eccentric in his time but has emerged as a major figure in American art since the discovery of thousands of examples of his work in the 1960s. Currently, Ohr is celebrated as a solitary genius who foreshadowed modern art movements. While an intriguing narrative, this view offers a narrow understanding of the man and his work that has hindered serious consideration.

    Ellen J. Lippert, in her expansive study of Ohr and his Gilded Age context, counters this fable. The tumultuous historical moment that Ohr inhabited was a formative force in his life and work. Using primary documentation, Lippert identifies specific cultural changes that had the most impact on Ohr. Developments in visual display and the altered role of artists, the southerner redefined in the wake of the Civil War, interest in handicraft as an alternative to rampant mass production, emerging tenets of social thought seeking to remedy worker exploitation, and new assessments of morals and beauty as a result of collapsed ideals all played into the positioning Ohr purposefully designed for himself.

    The second part of Lippert's study applies these observations to Ohr's body of work, interpreting his stylistic originality to be expressions of the contradictions and oppositions particular to late nineteenth-century America. Ohr threw his inspiration into being both the sophisticate and the "rube," the commercial huckster and the selfless artist, the socialist and the individualist, the "old-fashioned" craftsman and the "artist-genius." He created art pottery as both a salable commodity and a priceless creation. His work could be ugly and deformed (or even obscene) and beautiful. Lippert reveals that far from isolated, Ohr and his creations were very much products of his inspired engagement with the late nineteenth century.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-988-4
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-2)
    (pp. 3-8)

    THE STORY IS LEGENDARY: IN THE 1960S ANTIQUES DEALER JAMES Carpenter stumbled upon the boxed-up remnants of Biloxi potter George Ohr’s clay creations stored by his surviving children, Ojo and Leo, in their garage in Biloxi, Mississippi. Gambling on their worth, Carpenter mortgaged his home, purchased all six to ten thousand pieces and made history by obtaining by far the largest collection of his works. Regarded as an eccentric in his lifetime, Ohr has since emerged as a major figure in American art.¹

    In the 1960s ceramic market, Ohr’s radical bulging, collapsing, crusted, and bruised forms were difficult to categorize...


    • Chapter 1 QUEER GENIUS AND FREAKISH FOOL Ohr in His Own Time
      (pp. 11-21)

      CURIOUSLY, THE FIRST MAJOR PIECE ABOUT OHR WAS NOT A JOURNALISTIC account but a work of fiction, The Wonderful Wheel, written by Mary Tracy Earle and published in 1896. Earle was the daughter of Parker Earle, horticultural director at the New Orleans Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884, which Ohr attended. Two of Earle’s stepsisters would eventually marry Peter and Walter Anderson, who, along with their brother James, would build the internationally recognized Shearwater Pottery located in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, about twenty minutes from Biloxi. Earle’s family also owned property in Ocean Springs, where Mary Tracy Earle often vacationed. It was...

    • Chapter 2 MAKE A SPECTACLE OF YOURSELF Ohr at World’s Fairs and Expositions
      (pp. 22-32)

      IN THE MODERN ERA, MOST ARTISTS HAVE ACHIEVED A REPUTATION through art galleries and museums. Ohr, however, never showed his work in a gallery, and his attempts to place his work in institutional collections did little to advance his career. Instead, Ohr exhibited in a number of major fairs during his lifetime, including the following:

      1884, World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, New Orleans;

      1893, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago;

      1895, Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta;

      1900, National Arts Club, New York;

      1900, Exposition Universelle, Paris;

      1901, Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo;

      1901, Providence Art Club of Rhode Island; and

      1904, Louisiana...

    • Chapter 3 TWIXT GENIUS AND HUMBUG Ohr, Mass Media, and Self-Promotion
      (pp. 33-45)

      OHR RECOGNIZED HOW IMPORTANT IT WAS FOR BOTH HIS WORK AND persona to stand out from the crowd, even if it meant being regarded as annoying, crazy, or tasteless. After all, any publicity was good publicity and better than being unnoticed. The tactics Ohr employed at his studio and world’s fairs attest to his self-advertising skills. His expertise was not limited to these venues.

      Several contemporaneous writers noted that his methods of self-promotion were not truly crazy or unconsidered but reflected a deliberate strategy of gaining attention. In 1905 Ethel Hutson, a southern critic, Newcomb College graduate, and colleague of...

    • Chapter 4 “SMART ALECK, DAMPHOOL POTTER” Ohr as a Southern Character
      (pp. 46-57)

      NOT ONLY HAD OHR TAPPED NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN MODERN ADVERTISING when he crafted an eccentric persona, but he also tailored it to his particular client base. A general outline of the region’s commerce is helpful in understanding Ohr’s marketing savvy.

      Biloxi had an economy quite different from the rest of Mississippi. Aside from oyster and seafood canning, tourism was the main trade for Biloxi and the Gulf Coast. The completion of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) in the early 1880s connected the main ports of New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, and provided easy access to all of the coastal...

    • Chapter 5 REAL HEAD-HEART-HAND-AND-SOUL ART Ohr, Socialism, and Individual Purpose
      (pp. 58-71)

      BECAUSE OF ITS RELIANCE ON SEAFOOD CANNING AND TOURISM, BILOXI was freed from the strictures and ideologies of the plantation system that pervaded most of the South’s economy. “This industry [oyster and shrimp canning and shipping] is by far the biggest industry of the coast,” asserted prominent citizen W. A. Cox in his 1905 essay, “Biloxi Old and New.” The five large oyster and shrimp canning factories in the city ran eight months out of the year and were staffed mostly by hundreds of “bohemians . . . brought here from Baltimore, the chief northern oyster center.” The men lived...

    • Chapter 6 BEAUTY OF THE GROTESQUE The Malformed, Marginalized, and Mudbabies
      (pp. 72-84)

      THE VARYING TENETS AND FIGURES OF AMERICAN SOCIALISM, AS WITH ALL political and spiritual movements of the time, were, at base, searching for an answer to the same question: What is the purpose of humanity? To Ohr, and perhaps many others, socialism was a way to organize society so that all human effort and existence mattered. In contrast to capitalism, which legitimized the few getting wealthy off the backs of the many, socialism valued each member and contribution within society. Though not through overtly dogmatic or traditional means, society was striving for a solution to its current spiritual crisis. Through...


    • Chapter 7 GEORGE OHR, ART POTTER
      (pp. 87-100)

      OHR BEGAN HIS CAREER AS A COMMON LABORER, SPECIALIZING IN MANY trades. Even as a professional potter, many of his wares were simple forms intending to fill a need. During the 1880s and early 1890s Ohr ran classifieds in the Biloxi Daily Herald like this:


      GEO.E. OHR,

      Manufacturer of

      Flower Pots, Drain Tiles. Stove Flues,

      Water Jugs, Vases and Artistic Ware¹

      One 1889 ad, placed seven years after Ohr learned to pot, announced his sign-painting services. He seems to have been willing to perform almost any job for which he would be paid.

      Eventually, Ohr’s ambition shifted. In the...

    • Chapter 8 RUFFLING, CRUMPLING, AND TWISTING Ohr’s Visual Vocabulary
      (pp. 101-113)

      PREVIOUS CHAPTERS HAVE EXPLORED AND OUTLINED THE CONTEMPORAneous philosophies, movements, people, and places that had an impact on Ohr and his creativity. This second half of the book applies that insight to his body of work. His buckled and distorted pieces, at times malformed, anomalous, and event deviant, tossed aside the traditional functionality of clay work. Despite prevalent influences from his own time and throughout history, Ohr’s pottery was radical and unique. This chapter examines the methodologies, processes, and categories of Ohr’s output to further illuminate the choices that made him distinct within his time and among his colleagues. As...

      (pp. 114-127)

      IN THE SEQUEL TO HIS 1973 MONOGRAPH, GEORGE OHR AND HIS BILOXI ART Pottery, Robert Blasberg proposed an inexact and misleading method of dating Ohr’s collection that has been largely accepted as fact: “Since all the pottery in the building was destroyed by fire, Jim Carpenter estimates that 95% of the extant Ohr pieces date from the years between 1894 and 1906.”¹ Scholars have been willing to accept this generalization because it bolsters the importance of the 1894 fire to Ohr’s distinctive style. They agree that this unfortunate event propelled Ohr’s designs from interesting yet ordinary to tortured and revolutionary....

    (pp. 128-134)

    A PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN APRIL 1896 ILLUSTRATES THE UNCONVENTIONAL world inhabited by Ohr, his pots, and his children (plate 62). The first impression of his studio is simply of clutter—pots are seemingly piled everywhere. But it also boasts of his pride not only in the sheer quantity of pots produced, but in his ability as a hand craftsman to compete with the output of industrial methods.

    At first the arrangement seems utterly random, but, in fact, he placed his most prized pots near the center of the photograph, both scattered on the ground and sitting atop the bats. These pieces...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 135-146)
    (pp. 147-155)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 156-164)
  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)