Art pottery met its maker's expectation Review: George Ohr called himself the "greatest art potter on Earth." He died in 1918, and now pottery lovers say he was right.

April 16, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In terms of self-promotion, Muhammad Ali had nothing on George Ohr, who called himself "Unequalled! Unrivaled! Undisputed! Greatest Art Potter on Earth!"

And he wasn't far from right, as visitors to the current, extensive show of his works at Evergreen House can readily see.

Ohr (1857-1918) was born, lived and died in Biloxi, Miss., and called himself "The Mad Potter of Biloxi." He had some training in New Orleans when he was in his early twenties and traveled extensively in this country both to show his wares at international fairs and to learn about ceramics, from ancient Greek vases to contemporary folk pottery. His early work included standard wares such as crocks and flower pots, decorated plaques and garden urns.

But beginning in the late 1880s, he became a completely original art potter, inventing forms and glazes that have never been duplicated. His glazes are striking, sometimes of a single color and sometimes of half a dozen colors mingling and cascading along the sides of his vessels.

His forms, however, constitute his most imaginative contribution. The clay is tucked, twisted, ruffled, pinched and folded. A vase will have a scalloped shoulder that reminds you of waves on the sea, another will be crumpled up like a piece of waste paper, a third will have handles that look like ears or double or triple curlicues, a fourth will have a mouth that's squashed down on the body as if someone had sat on it.

The sides of these works can be as thin as heavy paper, and their weight so light that when held in the hand, they almost seem to defy gravity, half resting and half floating.

The Evergreen show has been organized by the local group known as the National Museum of Ceramic Art and Glass. This is the group's first exhibit since its downtown gallery closed in 1993 and is also, according to the show's curator, Shirley Brown, the first Ohr show ever held in Baltimore. Assembled from the holdings of five New York-area collectors including the artist Jasper Johns, it's a many-course feast of Ohr containing no fewer than 100 works created between about 1890 and 1907.

Included are a grand variety of forms, from tall, Greek-inspired vases to a squashed hat, and in between are such delights as a brown "heart-rim" vase with sides that swirl in and out like the movements of a dancer; and a twisty candlestick with one handle that sticks up and another that droops over, like a dog with one ear up and one down.

There are vases with multicolored glazes and ones with elegant single colors and ones with one group of colors on the outside and completely different ones inside. There is a case devoted to green vases, from almost black-dark to grass-colored, and two cases of unglazed bisque ware in which the color comes from the clay itself. There is a group of miniature works only two or three inches tall and another group of amusing ones including a log cabin inkwell and an artist's palette.

No two are alike, but most are asymmetrical, and all are expressive and dynamic. Nothing just sits there; they all grab your attention and say, "Hey! Look what I'm doing!"

Grouped in cases that march down the long hall and along two sides of one front room at Evergreen, these works have been given an installation that won't win prizes.

The lighting is particularly bad; in some places, daylight coming in a nearby window makes it all but impossible to see the works properly.

But Ohr's work is more than worth putting up with such difficulties. He was so far ahead of his time that he wasn't taken too seriously while he lived. But he predicted, "When I am gone my work will be praised, honored and cherished." It languished ++ as he left it in Biloxi for 50 years after his death. In 1968 it was discovered by James W. Carpenter, an antiques dealer from New Jersey who bought 7,000 pieces from Ohr's surviving children and offered them to the world. Since then, Ohr has become the legendary figure in the history of ceramics that he always knew he deserved to be.

Art pottery

What: "George E. Ohr: The Mad Potter of Biloxi"

Where: Evergreen House of Johns Hopkins University, 4545 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through June 15

Admission: $6; $5 seniors; $3 students

Call: 410-516-0341

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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