While walking through the galleries of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art I wondered what the Mad Potter Roofers in Biloxi MS of Biloxi would think of the Frank Ghery museum designed in his honor. Taking into consideration the potter’s designs (at the time of their creation considered to be, for lack of a better work, radical) I can’t help but think he would love the odd shapes and angular lines of the buildings. Georg Ohr, to say the least, was an artist and potter ahead of his time. Born in Biloxi in 1857 Ohr began to learn his art in 1879 as an apprentice to Joseph Fortune Meyer in New Orleans. After learning what he could, he travelled the United States to lean even more. “I pulled out of New Orleans and took a zigzag trip for two years and got as far as Dubuque…,” Ohr stated.
He settled back in Biloxi in 1883, opening his first potter studio and became a staple in the Biloxi community. Although he made his living by making utilitarian ware for the people of Biloxi, his heart and his passion lay in the off-beat designs that showed his inner-self. His most notable pieces were created between 1895 and 1903, following the destruction of his first studio in a fire that devastated Biloxi. During this time “the hallmark of his art pottery was the combination of vibrant glaze colors with distinctive forms that often exaggerated the traditional styles of the day.” His works were more often praised for their colors than their design. His critics bemoaned the art pottery as being “deliberately distorted” and showing a lack “of good proportion, of grace, and of dignity.”
Tired of the criticism and lack of recognition, Ohr closed his studio in 1910. But with a sense of foreshadowing he is quoted as saying “…when I’m gone…my work will be prized, honored and cherished. It will come.”
George Ohr’s time has come, as can be seen in the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. Far from a typical museum, the Ohr-O’Keefe is a campus of galleries, each building encapsulating the spirit of George Ohr. The first phase of the museum opened in 2010 and consists of four buildings. The Mississippi Sound Welcome Center, where tickets can be purchased, houses a small gallery, a gift shop and a cafe. There is also an observation area at the top of the building which offers visitors a spectacular view of the Biloxi.
The Gallery of African American Art is home to two galleries, the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino Gallery, which displays works by or about African Americans, and the Star Gallery, temporary home of Ohr’s works.
The IP Casino Resort Spa Exhibitions Gallery displays artwork stemming from the 20th and 21st centuries, and the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center, which is the reconstructed house of a freed African-American and his family (the original home was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina). The center depicts life as it was for a typical African-American family in the late 19th century, as well as racial relationships at the time.
As it stands now, the museum offers a serenity that surrounds the campus. With stunning views of the Coast, Ghery’s design of a series of buildings allows visitors breathing room as they venture from one exhibit to the next. Much of the artwork is probably more appreciated by older children and adults, but younger children may be delighted by some of the exhibits, such as “Earth, Sea, Sky” which has numerous clay fish and pieces of work with animal depictions.
Phase II of the campus, set to be completed in 2012, will see the opening of the City of Biloxi Center for Ceramics and the George Ohr Gallery. The former will provide pottery studios and community meeting space. The latter will be the heart of the museum as it will be the permanent home of Ohr’s pottery art.
One hundred years after Ohr shut the doors to his studio his prophetic words have come to fruition. And now, through the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art residents and visitors to the Coast can appreciate the genius of the Mad Potter of Biloxi.