George Ohr’s Studio in Biloxi, Detroit Photographic Co., Library of Congress

In this 1901 photograph, the famed but eccentric potter George Ohr sits back in his Biloxi studio surrounded by his little “clay babies.” Known as the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” art historians rank him among the most creative ceramic artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His brightly colored, exotic paper-thin pots were departures from the decorative tastes of the late Gilded Age. Though his studio was in Biloxi on the Gulf Coast, Ohr had strong ties to New Orleans, especially Newcomb College where he once worked as a potter.

In early photographs, Ohr appears as flamboyant and his art. He often spiked his long hair in opposite directions with his handlebar mustache twisted outward like long tentacles. His eyes were playful but focused. He was a poet and masterful self-promoter. 

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As art historian Patti Carr Black notes in her book, “Art in Mississippi: 1720-1980,” Ohr was never shy about singing his own praises and perceived place in the art world. He once wrote: “I am making pottery for art sake, God sake, the future generation, and – by present indications – for my own satisfaction, but when I’m gone (like Palissy) my work will be prized, honored and cherished.” Ohr described himself as “Unequaled! Unrivaled! Undisputed! Greatest Art Potter on Earth.”

Born in Biloxi in 1857 to immigrants from the Alsatian province of France, young George took up his father’s blacksmith trade. At the age of 14, he moved to New Orleans where he eventually worked several years with his childhood friend and potter Joseph Meyer of Newcomb art pottery fame. Ohr later returned to Biloxi and opened his own studio where he made utilitarian pottery and experimented with his art that was made from clay that he dug from the nearby Tchoutacabouffa River. His pottery career was on its way, or so it seemed. In 1885 he showed over 600 pieces at the New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. 

The exposition was a turning point in Ohr’s life for it led to pottery jobs with his old pal Meyers at New Orleans Art Pottery and at Newcomb College art department. In 1890 he returned to Biloxi where he created his new image and pottery of all descriptions, including his now rare bawdy little brothel tokens. 

“As he made his pots,” Black wrote, “he also created for himself a wildly eccentric persona – that of a brash and mischievous artist, wearing flowing beard and hair, hooking his moustache over his ears. He brought a show-business flavor to his shop, which became an established tourist attraction on the Gulf Coast; fascinated visitors could watch a virtuoso performance by the ‘mad potter of Biloxi’ and buy a memento of their trip.”

Tragically, fire destroyed Ohr’s studio in 1894. He immediately rebuilt a grander studio, naming it Biloxi Art Pottery Unlimited. Although historians have described the decade following the fire as his most creative period, his work received only modest critical acclaim during his lifetime. By 1909, he had become so disillusioned with the public’s response to his art that he closed the studio confident that one day his work would be revered by the art world. He died in 1918 during the great influenza epidemic. But Ohr was indeed prophetic – his pots are now “prized, honored and cherished.” Today, his “clay babies” sell for thousands and are found in the finest art collections.  

The life and work of the “Greatest Art Potter on Earth” are now featured at the equally unconventional Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi.