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The Mad Potter's Revenge 

He had a moustache that measured 18 inches from tip to tip, stretching like a pair of hirsute wings over a ragged goatee. His ceramics were as bizarre as his demeanor; contorted, colorful and unorthodox, some were paper thin and elaborately or even erotically convoluted, while others were much more subtle. He knew he was a genius and reveled in his eccentricity, but the "Mad Potter of Biloxi," as George Ohr was known, never received the recognition he was due. He abandoned ceramics in 1906 and converted his studio to a garage where he and his sons repaired automobiles and motorcycles until his death in 1918.

Even now, his name is hardly a household word. But that may be changing now that plans for a new Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art have been unveiled. Designed by Frank Gehry, who is arguably the hottest architect in the world today, it will be a small but bold complex set on four acres of live-oak trees along the Mississippi Gulf Coast at Biloxi. Expected to cost $16 million, an amount that pales in comparison to the $100-million-plus cost of most Gehry-designed projects, the museum will encompass an African-American gallery and contemporary arts exhibition space. The four-acre campus will also include an adjacent Native American meditation garden overlooking the site of a former tribal village. Though it will function as a community center, the Ohr component is the focal point that helped persuade Gehry to take on the project in the first place. So it was the allure of Ohr, with a little help from his present-day friends and fans, that actually sealed the deal.

As is so often the case, things fell into place more easily for Ohr after his death than during his life. When he died in 1918 his sons inherited his garage with 7,000 pieces of pottery in the attic. There they languished until 1968, when a New Jersey antiques dealer chanced upon them and eventually acquired them. Ignored in their day, Ohr's pots were an instant hit when they appeared in Manhattan galleries. Acquired by arts luminaries such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, they were declared the work of "the most memorable of all American potters" by David McFadden, the chief curator of the American Craft Museum.

Meanwhile, back in Biloxi, none of this was lost on Jeremiah O'Keefe III, who served as the city's mayor from 1973 to 1981, and more recently raised $6 million for the Ohr museum. The Frank Gehry connection arose from O'Keefe's remark to Robert Tannen and Jeanne Nathan, the New Orleans consultants (and Contemporary Arts Center co-founders) who were working on the feasibility study, that he wanted something "bold" for the design. "As soon as he said 'bold,' we thought of Frank," says Nathan, who with husband Tannen has known Gehry for the past 25 years. (Tannen and Nathan helped secure his only other area project, the amphitheater at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition).

Known for his use of technology to create structures in shapes and materials new to contemporary architecture, Gehry may have seen in Ohr a kindred spirit: Both at times appear to defy the laws of physics. Even confronted with a wooded site that allowed for no felling of trees, his enthusiasm for the project -- which he divided into "pavilions that will dance with the trees" -- remains undimmed. "I'm not a tree hugger, but this was a site designed by God," he declared.

Rejecting his own flair for the extravagantly twisted surfaces that recall the expressionistic curves of Ohr's pots, his design will feature a relatively simple cluster of two-story-tall, stainless steel-clad structures patterned loosely after the bulging bronze Shang Dynasty wine vessels of the 12th century B.C. Three buildings will exhibit pots from the existing Ohr museum collection, while the fourth will simulate his studio, with its welter of vases, bowls and erotic brothel trinkets cluttering the floor-to-ceiling shelves -- a touch that should make Ohr's restless spirit feel welcome home at last.

Also new and earthy is the Erth Gallery, at 8311 Oak St., across from the Maple Leaf, where the Biomechanical ceramics of Bonita Day are on display. Inspired by quantum mechanics, Day's sculptural installations suggest scenes from science fiction and surreal medical technology experiments. Calling her sculptures "an amalgam of parts that are hand built using coiling and pinching techniques," Day says they are "a means to explore and question our perceptions of reality in a physical universe" -- a sentiment that resonates neatly with the vision of a George Ohr or Frank Gehry.

click to enlarge The $16 million Ohr-O'Keefe Museum in Biloxi, Miss., is expected to feature three buildings exhibiting pots from the existing Ohr museum collection, with a fourth simulating his studio.
  • The $16 million Ohr-O'Keefe Museum in Biloxi, Miss., is expected to feature three buildings exhibiting pots from the existing Ohr museum collection, with a fourth simulating his studio.
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Speaking of Ongoing, Pottery By George Ohr

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