The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius
by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
Intermediate, Middle School Porter/Roaring Brook 56 pp.
10/13 978-1-59643-810-1 $17.99
“Eccentric” is an apt word for Ohr, a Mississippi blacksmith’s son (1857–1918) who reinvented himself as a potter: though he began his distinctive works on a potter’s wheel, he then reshaped them into “pronounced curves and free-flowing forms” and would “twist, wring, pummel, and fold” for effects “witty, rhythmic, and sensual.” Thus, literally and figuratively, a form’s original center was shifted in order to create a unique (and usually nonfunctional) sculpture, rather than the teapot or bowl its shape might suggest. Mostly self-taught and way ahead of his time, Ohr was undeterred by his lack of worldly success; a shameless self-promoter, he billed himself as a “Mad Potter” and priced his works high even when they hardly ever sold, though he did make utilitarian items to keep his large family afloat. There’s not much here about that family. They valued his work so little that “his grandchildren and great-grandchildren used a few bowls as targets for their BB guns”; a son burned all of Ohr’s papers. Fortunately, the pots themselves — whimsical, fantastical, downright beautiful — were rediscovered in the 1970s. Soon they were selling for tens of thousands of dollars, inspiring other artists, and being displayed in museums, including one especially built for them in Ohr’s native Biloxi — designed, appropriately, by Frank O. Gehry. Once again, Greenberg and Jordan (Ballet for Martha, rev. 7/10) have produced a magisterial portrait that’s both a character study and an appreciation of their subject’s oeuvre. Precise, vividly descriptive language; excellent, scrupulously sourced photos; full notes and bibliography; and useful back matter (on the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, “How to Look at a Pot,” “And How to ‘Boss’ One of Your Own”) all contribute to this inviting, eye- and mind-opening biography.
From the January/February 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.