Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Mad Potter by Jan Greenberg & Sandra Gordan

The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr Eccentric Genius
by Jan Greenberg & Sandra Gordan

Format: hardback

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Copyright: 2013
Published: October 29, 2013
Pages: 56
Genre: Biography
Age Range: 7 - 11

Source: library

Summary from Roaring Brook Press/Macmillian:
When George Ohr's trove of pottery was discovered in 1967, years after his death, his true genius was discovered with it. The world could finally see how unique this artist really was!
Born in 1856 in Biloxi, Mississippi, George grew up to the sounds of the civil war and political unrest. When he was 22, his boyhood friend introduced him to the pottery wheel. The lost young man suddenly found his calling.
"When I found the potter's wheel I felt it all over like a duck in water." 
He started creating strangely crafted pots and vases, expressing his creativity and personality through the ceramic sculptures. Eventually he had thousands at his fingertips. He took them to fairs and art shows, but nobody was buying these odd figures from this bizarre man. Eventually he retired, but not without hiding hundreds of his ceramics.
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, authors of the award winning Ballet for Martha,  approach this colorful biography with a gentle and curious hand.

This is an interesting biographical trip through the life of an eccentric artist whose creations were unappreciated during his lifetime. His body of work disappeared from view - actually he hid it all - and when it was re-discovered in 1967, it took the art world by storm. Ohr's motto was "No two alike" and it shows in the amazing array of pieces that he produced. 

Born in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1857 - four years before the start of the Civil War - the son of German immigrants, he started life with advantages that many would have envied. His father started the first blacksmith shop in Biloxi and his mother ran a grocery store. While most children would have followed in one of their parents footsteps, George Ohr struck out on his own to find his own way. The book follows his path through a few failed careers, through his discovery of ceramics and though the trials and tribulations of being a conceptual artist in an age of craftsmen. 
Pottery was predominately of a solely functional nature, but Ohr was an artist in clay - experimenting with form to the point that he eventually abandoned symmetry entirely. His glazes, use of materials and his overarching vision are all amazing to behold. They also overwhelmed potential customers and curtailed his ability to actually sell his work.
Source: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-mad-potter-of-biloxi/
On one hand, this book is a wonderful introduction to a little known (outside of ceramics / fine arts circles) artist whose work now has amazing influence on new artists. George Ohr is a fascinating character (though as I was reading I kept wondering what his wife's life was like and what she thought of it all). His art is just breathtaking and worth just staring at all for its own merits. 

On the other hand, I think the book cheats a bit - focusing on the 'misunderstood genius' angle when it also sounds like George himself was a pretty difficult character. The book also glosses over the fact that Ohr inherited money from his parents, which allowed him to set himself up as a town eccentric. He could afford to refuse to sell his pottery to people he didn't think appreciated it enough. For example, he sent an unsolicited sample of 50 pots to a New Orleans museum and when they only wanted to purchase 12 of them, George demanded all of the pots back. Most of the artists I know would have been thrilled to sell that many items.

There seems to be a blurry line between playing at the eccentric and really being a bit unhinged about things. (Speaking as an environmental geochemistry I also have to wonder if the use of heavy metals in his glazes eventually had an impact on him - many of the things he would have been working with are neurotoxins - they accumulate in the body and might actually have caused the shift from playful unconventional to truely pathological - but that is all speculation on my part!)

On the important subject of historically significant mustaches ... well George Ohr has been compared artistically to Picasso, but honestly - given the mustache - I see him more like a Salvador Dali. 

If you have an interest in an unconventional artist, want a children's story about dedication to ones' artistic vision, or a small glimpse into post-Civil War reconstruction life (though I would have liked to see that play a bigger role) this book is worth your time.

If you are interested, here is a link to the museum that is dedicated to his work, the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art. From the website, their ...
"mission is to promote and preserve the unique legacy of Biloxi potter George E. Ohr and the diverse cultural heritage of the Mississippi Gulf Coast; and to exhibit works which exemplify the independent, innovative, and creative spirit of George Ohr, emancipated craftsman Pleasant Reed, and Ohr-O’Keefe Museum architect Frank Gehry. This mission is served through compelling exhibitions and educational experiences viewed from a fresh perspective relevant to our community, the region, and the nation with a strong focus on ceramic arts. -Board of Trustees 1/13/2010"

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