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George Ohr, Art Potter - The Apostle of Individuality
by Robert A. Ellison, Jr.
The arts and crafts movement was an interesting experiment in melding the function of everyday objects with art. Chief among antiques and collectibles of the arts and crafts movement are, of course, the furniture, fixtures, and pottery. Reproductions of these objects are produced en masse to this day, and have only increased in acceptance and influence. Whether the general philosophy of the arts and crafts movement -- which focused on the hand-made objects, and the connection of the artist with the actual object -- is actually inherent in the factory-mass-produced, made-in-China replica, is beyond the average American, unschooled in art appreciation.
One of the more influential, and certainly most successful pottery studios in the late 1800's and early 1900's, was Rookwood Pottery. Except Rookwood was as much a factory business as any other. Artists were not so much connected to the work as that the market dictated what they produced. Rookwood was more successful in producing art pottery that appealed to a large audience -- and reaching that audience -- than any other pottery studio of its time.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is George Ohr. Ohr took every letter of the philosophy behind the arts and crafts movement to heart. Every piece of his, he, and usually he alone, created. Every piece had to express his motto "No two pieces alike". In a world of production pottery, this wasn't exactly a selling point. Add to the mix his flamboyant personality, and odd handlebar mustache, he gave himself the self-described distinction of dubbing himself "The Mad Potter of Biloxi". Even today, one can't really compare George Ohr's work to the established ceramics studios of his day. Instead, one must look much further ahead -- by 60 years or more, according to one calculation in this book -- to find something philosophically, aesthetically, or artistically similar. If you are going to collect arts and crafts movement pottery, Ohr is the artist to prize.
George Ohr's work can sometimes be grotesque, sometimes repulsive, or more usually, just so odd that most people today might overlook the work as a failed art-class project of a child. A trained eye, however, will know how difficult it is to throw a clay pot on a wheel with such precision -- to create eggshell-thin walls, or to "destroy" or distort the work so calculably. There is method to this "madness" when you think about a quote from Ohr himself (one of the very best examples of an artist statement I've ever read). One can see George Ohr's work as democratic in the extreme -- relishing and singing the praises of individuality -- in all its forms:
George Ohr, Art Potter is an excellent resource for this important ceramist's work. Beginning with the foreword by Martin Eidelberg, and continuing with the wonderful text by Robert Ellison, the book leads you through the history of the art pottery scene at the time of George Ohr, and into George Ohr's beginnings as a potter, before delving further into stylistic descriptions, common markings, types of glazes, and other defining characteristics. An easy read, one will have a well-rounded idea of how to spot an Ohr ceramic pot by the end of this book.
Over 300 previously unpublished examples of George Ohr's ceramic work are extremely well organized, lovingly photographed, and very well annotated. One will also particularly like Robert Ellison's subjective commentary on the works. Mr Ellison, himself a painter, shows a deep admiration for every example of Ohr work displayed in the book, and very ablely describes the techniques applied to each work, their function on the finished piece, and how the elements come together artistically. Each photographed work is also described in terms of size and identifying marks. This would be very helpful for identifying the piece later, should it come up for auction somewhere, but probably is more of a reference and helpful for identifying other works not shown in the book.
The only drawback to George Ohr, Art Potter is that there isn't a well defined description of how well the work sold during artists' lifetime, or how likely it is to find a George Ohr ceramic work today outside of an auction house. I often found myself wondering, looking at the old photos of Mr. Ohr, his studio, his family, and so on, how he supported his family. Building a pottery studio, buying clay and glazing material -- in Biloxi, Mississippi -- couldn't have been that cheap or lucrative. This may not be the fault of the author, however, and more of an issue because one of George Ohr's sons burned the family records. It's quite possible that there is George Ohr art pottery out there that isn't known. But I probably should state that this was also my first introduction to George Ohr, and the authors annotate the text with other documentary references that might actually be more forthcoming on the subject. And, to be fair, there are references to one collector who bought up six to 10,000 pieces and has slowly been selling on the market, and that the author himself, was introduced to George Ohr's work through a New York antiques dealer. So, it is possible to find George Ohr work outside of an auction house.
The book also only briefly mentions that George Ohr's work will be the cornerstone of the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi. The museum was under construction when Hurricane Katrina hit last year, and what had been constructed on the Frank Gehry designed structure was destroyed. It's not every day that someone who would be considered an outsider artist gets their own museum.
Robert Ellison's excellent book will make a great reference for the museum, and performs as such for current collectors. Mr. Ellison shows a great admiration for the work that shines through the well-researched text, annotated illustrations, and organization. He was able to pique my curiosity, and provide the necessary information that enabled me to appreciate the artist and artwork almost as much as the author.
Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself.
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