Wang column Feb. 13

Ian Wang views a classic Ohr mad pot on display in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

By IAN WANG

Rantoul Press columnist

In the early days of my working and living in America, one of the cultural shocks for me was the first time I came across George Ohr’s art potteries at some major American museums.

I was shocked but fascinated by them because some of the forms of his art pottery looked like he stepped on them or smashed the wet potteries onto the ground or against a wall to create their unexpected shapes and abstract sculptural forms.

According to some catalogs and art magazines, today Ohr is recognized as a major pioneer of American ceramics. He has a Frank Gehry-designed museum in his name, his work can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian. At auction, a large vase with handles, doused in a signature kaleidoscopic glaze, has gone for as much as $84,000.

Though I would love to collect one of the pieces of his unique ceramic art, it is almost impossible or it is not realistic to have my dream to come true.

Therefore, any time I see potteries similar to Ohr’s shape, formation or concept I get excited and try to collect them. As a result, I have collected a few pieces of art pottery in the same idea but made by other potters and sold at an affordable price.  

Last week my wife and I drove to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the Chinese Spring Festival with her family, and I stopped by the Greenbridge Pottery Studio in Baltimore. I was exicted to see several pieces of art pottery in the shape of Ohr’s art work displayed in the studio.

I asked the studio master potter and owner, Rebecca Moy Behre, if she made these pieces.

She said: "Yes and no; I throw the pots on my pottery wheel, put them on the work station for them to be dried and glazed before I fire them in the kiln. But some of my cat artists like to walk and sleep on them. When my cats did that, the wet potteries were crushed or made into some unexpected but interesting shapes and forms."

She said she glazed them according to their sculptural formation and fired them in her kiln. And since she regards cats and chickens as her Greenbridge Studio associate artists, she holds the cat artist’s paw to mark and sign the artwork before she fires it.

Behre’s explanation made it clear how her cats took part in, and how she made, those pots. It also made me wonder how Ohr did his famous Mad Pots, which are recognized as abstract art pottery.

I found on the internet some answers to my curiosity about Behre’s art career and Ohr’s unique ceramic art.

Behre grew up the child of practical parents of Chinese descent who valued education and the ancient history of the art and culture from which they came. It was no coincidence she found the combined engineering, sculpture and usefulness in the making of functional pottery ultimately appealing. Her passion for ceramics began in high school, led to setting up her first studio and kiln in her parents’ home and selling her first works by 1976.

Indulging a childhood love for nature and the beauty of gardens and plants, she completed a B.S. in Ornamental Horticulture at the University of Maryland College Park (1977), while simultaneously working on an M.F.A. in Ceramics from Antioch University (1978). She was invited to stay on as a full-time instructor at Antioch, eventually being promoted to associate professor.  

In 1984, she left teaching and spent time working periodically at Red Truck Clayworks, a production pottery in upstate New York. During this time, with the help and support of her parents, husband, family and friends the house, gallery and studio were built on 5.8 acres of pasture in Dayton, Md., where Greenbridge Pottery stands and Becky, her husband, two dogs, three cats, and umpteen chickens reside today.

This Greenbridge Pottery webpage description reminds me that a couple of years ago, the four tea bag trays I bought from her studio each had a chicken foot mark inside. I realize this foot mark must be done by her associate chicken artist served both as a decoration and an artist’s signature!  

Ohr, meanwhile, was born in Biloxi to German immigrant parents in 1857. He got his start in ceramics in New Orleans in the 1870s, where potteries were thriving (later, the city’s all-women Newcomb College would become a major hub of ceramics in the United States). After learning to throw pots in New Orleans, Ohr spent more than a year traveling by train through 16 states to visit other potteries; he witnessed the state of ceramics in the U.S., and encountered peers who had begun emulating the style and techniques of French and Japanese pottery.

Ohr would create functional works alongside his experimental art pottery. It was the latter work that, in combination with his flamboyant personal brand, earned Ohr a reputation as an eccentric.

What made Ohr’s work so notable? For one, he embraced asymmetry, which was a bold move. His forms were shockingly extraordinary. A display label at the Baltimore Art Museum describes: "George Ohr presented himself as ‘the mad potter of Biloxi’, but his virtuoso wares, potted thinly of Mississippi mud, then twisted, dented, ruffled or folded, are  unique."

The key to Ohr’s process was throwing pots to the point that the walls became thin and buckled or collapsed, leading to crumples and ribbon-like ruffles. It’s a phenomenon that most people experience when learning to throw a pot for the first time, but Ohr controlled the sensation, and used it in his favor.

"He took every element of the pot and began to radicalize it," ceramics expert and art historian Garth Clark explains. "It sounds like a very simple thing, but the break with symmetry [in ceramics] didn’t really begin to happen until the 1950s when ceramists like Peter Voulkos and others began to tear the vessel form apart and reconstruct it.

"He was 50 years ahead of his time," says Clark. "During Ohr’s time, people were accustomed to buying a vase meant to sit pretty on a mantle or hold flowers. The output of the "Mad Potter"—"town and twisted, pulled apart"  was a true break with tradition.

In conclusion, I would like to point out, although, there are some physical similarities of the outside shapes between Ohr’s art potteries and Behre’s cat-assisted potteries, the fundamental difference is the former was designed by the creator, but the latter was by accident and not by design from the cat. Nevertheless, the studio master Behre did incorporate naturally the cat’s accidentally made shape into her overall pottery and sculptural design. That might be why Behre credits her cats as her studio associate artists. It is also why I find the process so fascinating and purchased a few pieces of the cat-assisted contemporary ceramic art for a taste of American Modernity.    

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contacted by e-mail: wangyu@illinois.edu