Riding the train south through the deep pine woods of Mississippi in the early 1880s, tourists to the Gulf Coast came to Biloxi for sunshine and surf. Along with its beaches, the little town had its own opera house, white streets paved with crushed oyster shells, and fine seafood. Yet back in those years, there were no casinos as there are now, and not a lot to do besides swim, stroll and eat shrimp. Then, in the 1890s, the town boasted a new tourist attraction, one based on genius or madness, depending on one’s point of view…
Ahalf-century after Ohr’s death, James Carpenter, an antiques dealer from New Jersey, was making his annual winter tour of the GulfCoast. Carpenter wasn’t looking for pottery; he was shopping for old car parts. One sweltering afternoon in 1968, he stopped at the Ohr Boys Auto Repair in Biloxi. While he was browsing, Ojo Ohr, then himself in his 60s, approached Carpenter’s wife. In his slow Mississippi drawl, Ojo asked, “Would y’all like to see some of my daddy’s pottery?” Carpenter rolled his eyes as if to suggest they had to be going, but his wife, whose curiosity was apparently aroused, said, “Sure.” Back at the cinder block garage, Ojo opened the doors to reveal the most amazing collection of pottery in the history of American ceramics. Several pieces were set out on tables; the rest filled crates stacked to the 12-foot ceiling. A few had been cleaned of their greasy film. Catching the sunlight, they sparkled like the day Ohr had given them life.
Carpenter had never heard of Ohr. Few outside Biloxi had. Yet he recognized the beauty of the work, as did Ohr’s son. When Carpenter reached to pick up a pot, “Ojo chewed me all out,” he later recalled. “ ‘Nobody touches Daddy’s pottery!’ Ojo said.” But he relented, and Carpenter, wondering if he might be able to sell them, was allowed to examine a few pots as Ojo held them up for inspection. Finally, Carpenter decided to take a gamble. He offered $15,000—about two bucks a pot—for the entire lot. Ojo left to consult with his brother and came back shaking his head no. It took several more years for the brothers to decide to part with their legacy and agree on an asking price. In the end they settled on a sum that back then, says Carpenter, “would have bought a very desirable house”—in the range of $50,000. But according to one Ohr scholar, by the time Carpenter returned with the money, Ojo had upped the price to $1.5 million. After three more summers of negotiations, for a price rumored to be closer to the lower figure, Carpenter moved Ohr’s treasures to New Jersey, where they began trickling onto the marketplace.
Meanwhile, the art world had begun catching up to Ohr. During the 1950s, a school of Abstract Expressionist ceramics had flowered, creating free-form works that looked more like sculpture than pottery. Artists, including Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, bought Ohr’s pots, as did several collectors, though the curator of ceramics at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History protested Ohr’s inclusion in a show in 1978, calling him “just plain hokey.” Only in 1984, when Ohr pots appeared in paintings by Johns at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery, did praise and critical esteem begin to flow. After a series of one-man shows of Ohr’s work, collectors such as Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson purchased pieces and drove prices up. Today, the same pots scorned a century ago sell from $20,000 to $60,000 each. Back in 1900, when his pots were barely selling at all, exasperated exhibition organizers would ask Ohr to put a value on his works. “Worth their weight in gold,” he would answer. In retrospect, he sold himself short.
Today, Ohr is hailed as a “clay prophet” and “the Picasso of art pottery.” His resurrection proves that madness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But then, he always knew that, and so did visitors to his shop, at least those who were trained in the classics and paid strictest attention. On their way out of the cluttered, crowded studio, they would pass yet another hand-lettered sign, this one inscribed with a Latin phrase: Magnus opus, nulli secundus / optimus cognito, ergo sum! Translated it read: “Amasterpiece, second to none, The best; Therefore, I am!”