Organized by the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, Biloxi, Mississippi
December 8, 2007 - February 23, 2008.
Opening Reception Saturday, December 8th, 6-9pm
Ohr Rising: The Emergence of An American Master is an exhibition of 40 key works by the art potter, George E. Ohr (1857-1918), of Biloxi, Mississippi. In terms of his aesthetic choices, George E. Ohr was a ceramic artist decades ahead of his time. Early on, having mastered the potter's wheel for production of utilitarian ware and popular souvenir items, Ohr became dissatisfied with the limits of round pots and began to experiment by altering his wheel-thrown shapes. On occasion he used the centrifugal force of his potter's wheel to cause the pot to twist or buckle. At other times he manipulated the form with his fingers, using folding, indenting or ruffling techniques to change the contour or rim of the piece.
An important turning point of Ohr's career was the 1894 destruction of his studio in an all-consuming fire. After construction of his new studio, Ohr seemed to be more committed than ever to pursuing his novel approach to form. Thin walled, asymmetric shapes, often with elaborate, ribboned handles or ruffled edges became his trademark. The unconventional work was not understood nor well received. Critics denounced Ohr's work as bizarre or ugly, and with negligible sales his "art" remained virtually unrecognized during his lifetime.
George E. Ohr's life story holds as many fascinating twists and turns as does his pottery. His persona was the epitome of today's phrase, "inventing oneself." Ohr's flamboyant physical appearance, his massive mustache, his wild eyes, his outrageous claims of infamy, and crazy billboard signs earned him the title, "The Mad Potter of Biloxi." Today George Ohr pieces are highly valued for their inventiveness and prized as precursors of the 1950's abstract expressionist attitude toward clay.
The word "Rising," in the exhibition title refers to the "rise from destruction" theme taken on by Mississippi's Gulf Coast in its valiant recovery effort from Hurricane Katrina, 2005. The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, which suffered major damage during the storm, is likened to Ohr's Biloxi studio which was destroyed by fire in 1894. Interestingly, the museum which bears his name has adopted "Ohr Rising" as its mantra for rebuilding, which will begin about the time this exhibit opens.
Currated by Anna Stanfield Harris, a few of the works in the Ohr Rising exhibit are owned by private collectors in Mississippi, but most are from the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum's permanent collection. Underwriting for the exhibit is provided by grants from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Other Mad Potters
A Corollary Exhibition to
Ohr Rising: The Emergence of An American Master
December 8th – February 23rd, 2008 Opening Reception: Saturday, December 8th, 6-9 pm
Mary Roehm is known for her gravity defying, paper-thin vessels, made from porcelain, and wood fired. Like George Ohr, Roehm's extraordinary skill at the potter's wheel enables her to create feather-light, nearly translucent forms. In Ohr-like fashion, Roehm exploits the characteristic twisting of thin walled pots, but she goes beyond Ohr, pushing the limits even further by cultivating out-of-round rims with torn edges and by permitting collapse, disintegration and fracture. Roehm takes a material associated with weight and inflexibility and creates the illusion of flight. "For me, the vessel speaks to the architecture of an object. The inside/outside relationships of space and volume, historically speaking, address utility. The vessel, in particular the bowl form, has a rich history in the craft tradition and provides ample opportunity for investigation and personal interpretation." Although not represented in the Ohr Rising exhibit, George Ohr left many of his works unglazed, perhaps to better appreciate the form. Similarly, Roehm leaves the majority of her work unglazed, allowing the fire to work its magic upon the surface of the object.
Observations about the creative process, and the evolution of work
As a kid, I saw, acted, made objects, drawings, I performed, I was very curious, and was always going outside the lines/boundaries. I was often in trouble. This strength, bigger than my conscious self knew, directed me. Now I understand this to be the creative process. The creative process is the most fundamental aspect I know and trust about myself. I respect that it isn't tangible and the more one tries to own it and make it conscious, the more elusive it becomes. It is like breath, an ever-present, unconscious, living activity.
There is no formula for developing focus. Mine is a crooked line made up of a hodge-podge of experiences, in the name of being fearless and willing to try anything once (within reason!). While I have experience with success, it is founded on a greater number of failures, believing that only real experience are we able to figure out what we want, what we need and how to pursue our work, whatever that is. Curiosity, experimentation, a willingness to be fearless in the pursuit of excellence, and clarity of expression are fundamental to good art making.
My practice is materials-based and responds to the social and anthropological nature of life and culture. As I have grown in experience, the inquiry/research accumulates and the curiosity leads to more critical concerns. The desire to express observations about the nature of repetition underlies the content of my most recent work. There is a meditative quality and rhythm (sometimes interrupted) in the act of punctuating thin porcelain slabs. The process activates the work. The challenge keeps me engaged.
As I look forward, I am excited by possibilities. I am grateful and humbled by the power invested through me, and continue to trust this creative process in all aspects of my life.
Don Pilcher's retirement from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he was a professor of art, has given him the time and freedom to pursue an uncommon approach to ceramics, blending it with story telling. The ceramic ware is genuine, but the story that Pilcher writes, while inspired by his real life, is mostly fiction. He calls it a "biography, twisted through some portal in my imagination..." The tale is about an imaginary pottery where the leading character, Georgette Ore, several other fabricated figures, and Pilcher himself make "Rascal Ware." The chapters are laced with edgy humor, double-entendres, and potter's pseudo wisdom. Aside from a certain similarity between George Ohr's work and "Rascal Ware," Pilcher's tall tales make many references to Ohr. Georgette says that "her family has a legend that there is a connection between the Ores and the Ohrs. The discrepancy in spelling is attributed to the Immigration Service, an alcohol treatment sanitarium, or unregulated voting practices in a large rural county..." Junior, owner of the pottery, is described as "a born-again, fundamentalist, clay-thumping potter. For him, Rascal Ware is a divine calling… where he and George Ohr will sit at the right hand of whomever."
Including Don Pilcher in Other Mad Potters was based on a number of considerations, most obvious of which is his literary reference to George Ohr in Rascal Tales. Physical similarities exist between the work of Pilcher and Ohr - slumped forms, caved structures, manipulated rims, and metallic surfaces. The two artists share parallel principles: the value of experimentation, the importance of original style, and the merit of taking creative risks. Art critic, Jason Foumberg describes Pilcher's work in words that could easily describe Ohr's work. "In Pilcher's hands, traditional structures are re-invented. ...the vessels sometimes have holes or are caving in on themselves and are functionally lost... [Their] subtle beauty can be found in the fate of gravity and fire." The small size and scale of work made by the then-and-now ceramic artists are in sync, lending preciousness to their vessels.
Lisa Orr makes fanciful tableware with a slightly baroque quality, more like table art than functional cups, plates, and bowls. Her pieces, formed with a combined use of molds and the potter's wheel, are asymmetric with irregular edges. Most noticeable is her colorful combination of glazes and textured surfaces created with stamps, slips and sprigged application. At first glance, the meticulous intricacies and thick slab construction of Orr's work contradict its selection as a viable comparison to George Ohr's fragile, graceful ceramics. But, Lisa Orr's work was chosen because of her colorful palette of glazes that is strikingly similar to those used by George Ohr.
Lisa Orr uses six colors of slightly fluid clear glaze in various combinations, which flow and settle into the crevices created by her designs, leaving a rich jewel-like pool. The color combinations created by George Ohr are the result of layering the glazes, either horizontally or vertically. He often used spattering or sponging of one glaze over another, to give a mottled appearance. His glazes also "pool," accumulating in the recesses formed by twists, folds, or dented surfaces.
Both George Ohr and Lisa Orr have made references to Bernard Palissy (c. 1510 - c. 1589), a ceramic artist, who like George, was unappreciated during his time. The snakes and serpents applied to some of Ohr's pieces have a similar look to the three-dimensional lizards, snakes, newts, toads, and frogs that Palissy used in his work. Palissy's repertoire consisted mainly of dishes and plaques ornamented with relief casts of sea life, plants, animals, and allegorical and mythological scenes. Likewise, Lisa Orr uses a press mould and sprigging technique to create various raised ornamentations and elevated surfaces.
Looking at Steve Horn's work there is a sense that he may have out Ohr-ed Ohr, taking the master's techniques to a new level of obsession. Horn spent appreciable time studying Ohr's work, speculating on how he created ruffles and twists, and practicing the skills until they became his. Steve Horn has captured other George Ohr treatments as well. His handles have the same delicate, thin-ribboned appearance; the rims of his pots have been folded to form divided vessels; the bottoms have been folded to create legs; and Ohr's famous snakes often appear, wrapped around the circumference of Horn's forms. Horn based his glaze research on the assumption that Ohr's glazes were probably lead-based, which he found to be correct. Just as with Ohr's glazes, some of Horn's are fluid, some matte, some akin to gun metal; and, as was Ohr's practice, some of Horn's pieces are left unglazed. In his imitation of George Ohr, Steve Horn has created the "sincerest form of flattery," and has done it with great style.
Surfing, Ceramics, Tai Chi, and George Ohr
(Listed in the order of my discovery)
"Stoked" is the expression. That's how I felt when I first saw George Ohr's "mud babies." As a long-time surfer, I understand immersion in over-the-top enthusiasm. That was also my reaction to my first ceramics class and my first tai chi lesson. All of these activities — surfing, making things out of clay, doing tai chi — embody a tension between a disciplined, balanced core and an expressive and sometimes explosive flow of movement. They're meditative and solitary, and they're tribal at the same time. And, putting aside the Zen business, they're a whole lot of fun! Ideas are important, but they don't mean a thing if they ain't got that zing.
I suppose it was impudent and maybe imprudent to want to be a member of a George Ohr tribe, to attach my work to that of an artist who was so clearly one of a kind. But, as with surfing and ceramics and tai chi, he was irresistible to me. I saw his pots and I wondered, How do you do that? And then I just wanted to see if I could.
It took several years to learn to work in the way of George Ohr-to throw thin and to execute the twists, dents, pinches, ruffles and collapses (controlled or otherwise). These techniques are more akin to glassblowing, as is Ohr's method of working on the top and bottom of a piece at more or less the same time. Many of his glazes are also very glassy; it was a challenge to develop my own glazes in the Ohr spirit.
When you adopt someone's methods, inevitably you will arrive at many of the same conclusions, but you hope you can push a little farther, past mere emulation, or perhaps in a different direction. Standing on George Ohr's shoulders is no easy feat: it's a balancing act, like trying to stay on your board atop a wild wave. I know there are many more waves out there in several vast oceans, but this one has been a great ride.