George Ohr, a.k.a. “The Mad Potter of Biloxi,” was quite a character. He lived from 1857-1918 and first became interested in ceramics in 1879 when he served as an apprentice to Joseph Fortune Meyer. He went on to create an astonishing amount of pottery during his lifetime.
At first he created functional pottery, and this is how he supported his family, but later he began to experiment with different forms and glazes. Every piece he made was unique, and having seen the collection at the museum, I can attest that they are amazing. Most of them are paper thin, and I was told they are light as a feather! (Click here to see a short video about George Ohr and view some of his amazing pots.)
George suffered many losses in his life. Five out of ten children did not reach adulthood. In addition, a fire in 1894 destroyed his workshop and all the pots in it. He salvaged some of them and called them his “burned babies.” A few of these are on display at the museum.
Although George received critical acclaim for his work during his lifetime, he was disappointed that the public would not pay the prices he wanted for his work. He considered himself the greatest potter in the world, and he believed that someday the world would see his work as unequaled by any other. Having seen his work, I believe he may have been right.
He quit making pottery about ten years before he died in 1918, and he wrapped up much of his work and stored it in the attic of his shop. After he died, his sons opened a used car parts shop where his studio used to be. But the story doesn’t end there, of course.
In the 1960s, an antique dealer from New York traveled through Biloxi looking for old Cadillac parts. He found some old Cadillacs parked at the shop, but George’s sons didn’t want to sell the car parts. Instead, they convinced the antique dealer that he should buy all their dad’s old pottery. He paid them around $50,000 for all of it.
Once the pottery was shipped to New York, the antique dealer began selling the pottery at auction. Each piece was selling for about $50,000, and now George Ohr’s pottery is recognized as extraordinary — just as he predicted it would be.
If you’re ever in Biloxi, I highly recommend going to the museum. The architecture of the building is very interesting, and there is also a working pottery studio on the campus. You can walk inside and speak to the artists who are working there. They also have a good mix of temporary exhibits, and the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center is an exhibit of African American culture and history in Biloxi, which we enjoyed very much too.
If you’re as fascinated with George Ohr as I am, you may enjoy this more detailed article too.