“And then came the good part” said Martin Shack. Remembering the exhilaration of the chase, he couldn't get the words out fast enough, as he told the tale of how he, an insurance broker from Bellmore, New York, and his wife, Estelle, had become the foremost collectors of the idiosyncratic pottery of George E. Ohr. Around the turn of the century, in Biloxi, Mississippi, Ohr created some of the most original American art pottery now in existence.
Sitting in his living room, Mr. Shack was recalling the day in 1976 when one of George Ohr's sons had led him into a tumbledown Biloxi house, one of several dilapidated Ohr family residences. "It was like the Collyer brothers. It was like a garbage dump. The ceiling was falling in. There were old mattresses around." In the midst of the mess stood a noble ceramic urn, five feet tall, unglazed. "We had to clear a path to get to it," said Mr. Shack. "We paid $6,000 for it - reluctantly." "I thought it was a white elephant," said Mrs.
Shack. "I still think so. But we couldn't leave it there. We really had to save it." Ohr pottery had been on the market for only four years at that time, after more than a half-century in the attics of the potter's descendants. The urn, as far as anyone knows, is the largest piece of its kind that exists.
The Shack collection, which is one of two or three distinguished private hoards of Ohr, consists of 300 pieces - one hundred of which have just come back from the first one-man show of George Ohr's pottery, organized by the Mississippi State Historical Museum in Jackson this past spring. Though the Shacks own a curious miscellany of other objects - from Mexican museum replicas and petticoated porcelain damsels to sentimental plaster figures by John Rogers, and a trick papier-mache bulldog on wheels - it is the Ohr pots in contorted, explosive shapes, extravagantly glazed that dominate the house.
Some Ohr collectors - and these include the Smithsonian Institution and the Brooklyn Museum as well as independent connoisseurs - may come to their
passion for the work of "the mad potter of Biloxi," as he was known, through an interest in the American Arts & Crafts movement of the turn of the century. Like its counterpart in England and on the Continent, the art pottery movement was in part a reaction against the mass-produced factory pottery of the nineteenth century.
There was no studio or art pottery as such in the United States, however, until after the great Centennial Exhibition of 1876, where handmade pottery from Japan was displayed. By the turn of the century, the movement was in full swing and Ohr was the first of the real artist-potters in America and arguably the finest. A genius ahead of his time, he worked from 1883 to 1909 with an insouciance and energy that was not to resurface until after World War II
Ohr's position as forerunner and prophet of the experimental pottery of the last few decades has also been a big attraction for collectors. But for the Martin Shacks, the real enticement has been the flamboyant personality of the man who made those loop-handled pitchers and vases, those double-spouted teapots, those twisted, translucent bowls.
Born in 1857, the son of a blacksmith in Biloxi, Ohr took off for New Orleans at the age of eighteen, where he held a series of jobs and apprenticeships, including blacksmithing. About 1885, he apprenticed himself to a potter of the day and family friend, Joseph Meyer. Later Ohr would write in an article for a ceramics trade magazine, "When I found the wheel I felt it all over, like a wild duck in water." By the late 1880s he was setting up what he called his "Pot-Ohr-Ree" in Biloxi. It burned down in 1893, but Ohr rebuilt it the next year.
Ohr gathered his own clay, traveling up the Tchoutibuffe River in his boat the ‘Katty’, and even taking samples from the unpaved streets of Mobile and New Orleans. He had an experimental spirit. Whereas other art potters of the time were working at tables, applying decorations to finished pots, Ohr committed himself to the entire process. He threw the pots, fired them at low temperatures in wood-burning kilns, glazed them and sold them.
In this, as in other respects, he was an oddity. His promotional highjinks won him a reputation as a madman, and he willingly played the role. He had a long white beard, piercing eyes and no apparent sense of abashment. He preferred to be a clown and buffoon, rather than an artist without an audience. "I found out . . . it paid me to act this way," he remarked to an acquaintance in later years.
With the instincts of a P.T. Barnurn, he announced on a placard at his Pot-Ohr-Ree and at various fairgrounds exhibitions that he was the "UNEQUALLED UNRIVALED UNDISPUTED GREATEST ART POTTER ON THE EARTH- AMERICAN BORN, FREE AND PATRIOTIC, BLOWING MY OWN BUGLE, AND WILL TACKLE THE GREATEST OF ALL POTTERS IN THE WORLD."
Certainly, Ohr knew the worth of his work. He hated to sell it and, long beard flying, was said to have chased unlucky purchasers down the street to retrieve his precious goods. In 1909 he suddenly announced that he had thrown his last pot and wanted his work wrapped and crated for posterity e.g., for the Smithsonian, which he hoped might buy his entire oeuvre. There were perhaps 7,000 of the awkwardly beautiful pots to be stored. And so his lifework went into storage, and only a few people knew it was there. In 1965 and again two years later a friend of the Ohr family named Bobby Davidson Smith organized small local exhibitions of Ohr's work but with no notable result. But Ohr was to be discovered by a New York State dealer named James W. Carpenter, who in the early sixties had gone to Biloxi on another sort of collecting mission entirely: he was searching for antique car parts, and as it happened, the descendants of George E. Ohr were by then selling such things.
Mr. Carpenter, who by his own account sells "a general line of antiques - primitive old car parts, glassware, anything that's old," at Carpenter Antiques in Port Jervis, New York, was on his fifth trip to Biloxi to buy car parts from the Ohrs when some member of the family suggested he might like to see "some pottery Daddy made." Or so Mr. Carpenter remembers the conversation. "I thought. Oh no, here we go," said Mr. Carpenter. And then he saw the pottery. Only a piece or two, to be sure. But it was enough. He spent the next five years trying to buy it.
In 1972 he at last succeeded in acquiring almost all of it - by the crate. Before Mr. Carpenter came along, the Ohr market simply did not exist. Bobby Davidson Smith recalls that thirteen years ago even museums were uninterested in Ohr's work: "Museum people said that art pottery collections were few and far between, and Ohr had no value. I had to establish a market."
But Mr. Carpenter did not try to place the most important pieces in the museums. He let his customers buy on a first come, first served basis. Though Mr. Carpenter himself isn't saying, others have estimated that he paid $50,000 for the 7,000 pots he bought, 6,000 of which were in good condition, or an average of about $7 per pot. Prices now range from $250 to $2,000. Like its maker, the pottery is offbeat, individualistic. Though George Ohr may be technically part of the art pottery movement he was - in his art as in all else – a maverick. By the time of his death in 1918 at the age of sixty-one, more than one hundred potters in twenty-three states were turning out handcrafted pots in defiance of all principles of mass production; but all this usually meant was that they were adding fanciful glazes or decorative motifs to ordinary pots. But not Ohr. "He doesn't tit into the art pottery movement at all," Mr. Clark has said. "He seems to be Art Nouveau, but isn't. He seems to be Japanese, but isn't. He seems to be outside the aesthetic concerns of his time."
While Ohr's Victorian contemporaries were making seductively beautiful objects with opulent glazes, Ohr was turning out pots that were crimped and twisted, dislocated and squeezed, tortured into angular asymmetry or crumpled like paper bags. Sometimes their walls were as thin as paper. Ohr would throw forms so exquisitely thin that they seemed about to collapse. Then, he would make them collapse, play with them, exploit them, explore their accidental possibilities.
And then there are the glazes, which were thought remarkable and beautiful even in Ohr's day. He set up an opposition between his crude, primitively forceful shapes and the often voluptuous colors he adorned them with. This opposition added to the tension that already existed between the massive presence of his pots and the unexpected fragility of their walls, and is undoubtedly what gives them their special quality.
According to Garth Clark, Ohr "pushed the expressionist qualities of clay to its plastic limit, dealt form on a level of poetic anthropomorphism and played a capricious and satiric game with function… Ohr is the true prophet of American clay, even down to the spirit of machismo, exhibitionism and the workshop circuit that he employed to gain an audience for his work."
Or as Martin Shack put it, somewhat more succinctly, "This is art. It's not antiques anymore." The Shacks, whose collection is perhaps now the finest, did not see their first Ohr pots until 1974. This happened at a dinner party, and the Shacks' hosts, who owned a few pieces of Ohr pottery, eventually
made them a present of a three-and-a-half-inch Ohr vase with a mottled green glaze. "It was contagious," said Mrs. Shack. "The more you see the more you want."
They were not, however, much interested in what Mr. Carpenter still had left in his shop by this time: he had already sold most of his best pieces to his friends. Disappointed by the dealer's holdings, Mr. Shack "went back to the office one day and decided to make a call to Biloxi information." He came up with the phone numbers of three Ohrs. "I recognized one as his son Geo - he named his seven children so that their initials were also their names," said Mr. Shack. lola Ohr answered the phone. Her husband Geo had died, she said, but yes, she had a little pottery, and yes, it would be all right if the Shacks came down to see her.
But the Biloxi address she gave them led to an abandoned house. Twice they went back, and on the third visit an old man they met directed them to a one-room shanty attached to a large garage where they found lola Ohr. Reticent at first, she warmed up on the second day and showed them her father-in-law's pottery. It was not, she said, for sale. "But we looked so dejected," said Mr. Shack, "that she gave us a small piece of pottery." And as he spoke, Mr. Shack produced the piece wrapped in a paper towel. Slightly bigger than his thumbnail, it is a primitively fashioned urn with spattered glaze and a handle near the top, making a rectangle of the whole. For the moment that was all Mrs. Ohr would part with. But in the succeeding two years, Mr. Shack corresponded with her, winning her trust and that of Bobby Davidson Smith, the Ohr family friend, who says now, "I think Martin Shack had the best interest of family and pottery at heart." In 1976, lola Ohr lost many of her possessions in a fire, just as George Ohr once had. She was ready to sell. The Shack family flew south. "We were very optimistic. We rented a station wagon," said Mrs. Shack.
On lola Ohr's table were perhaps forty pots. "She said. There's your pottery,'" Mr. Shack recalled. "We didn't even work out a price until the end." The price she set was the cost of a new station wagon, and the Shacks say they paid her $5,500. Mrs. Ohr now says she never did buy that station wagon, nor does she remember how much the Shacks paid. "I sold to him because I liked him," she said. "I still like him."
While Mr. Shack was at lola Ohr's house that day, another Ohr came around - Geo's brother, Ojo. It was he who led the Shacks to the five-foot ceramic urn that they paid $6,000 for and to another fine piece as well - a fluid, fluted vase, with roses applied as decoration above an awkward crest. Having acquired this vase for $2,000, the Shacks discontinued their trips to
Mississippi and went back to conventional sources - antiques shops, auctions and other collectors.
Now Ohr's audience is growing. His work has appeared at art pottery exhibits everywhere. And prices are rising so fast that Martin Shack, who estimates he paid $50,000 over the years for his collection, has insured it for $150,000. "We're just very lucky we found out about it early” he said. "We always said people were very lucky who started collecting Tiffany years ago."