Photo by Chuck Cook
Blending the innovative and creative minds of the “Mad Potter of Biloxi” George Ohr and world-renowned architect Frank Gehry has resulted in an artistic cultural experience that can hardly be rivaled this side of Chicago.
The long-awaited opening of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi offers admirers the opportunity to view the genius of these two trailblazers in their respective fields of pottery and architecture.
“Gehry is the rock star of all current-day architects,” said Julie Gustafson, Development Manager of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum. “Ours is the only Gehry-designed museum in the southeastern United States. We are very fortunate to have it because people come to see his designs whether there is art in them or not.”
Some of Gehry’s best-known works include the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada, and the Seattle Music Experience.
Originally brought onboard in 2003 by museum board member and local philanthropist Jerry O’Keefe, Gehry’s vision was put into motion with the groundbreaking that same year. When Hurricane Katrina barged in on Aug. 29, 2005, the museum was only 11 months away from completion.
“During Katrina, our building was literally run over by the barge from the Grand Casino. Built to hurricane specifications, the pylons were 60 feet down. The water was 32 feet high, but the building was able to stop the barge from going further inland,” Gustafson said.
After regrouping mentally and emotionally, staff and volunteers began their efforts to rebuild the museum.
Located just off of Highway 90, the Ohr-O’Keefe complex is comprised of numerous original Gehry designs and a few historical buildings that were moved to the site, such as the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center, a turn-of-the-century house commemorating the life of Pleasant Reed, one of the first emancipated African-Americans to build and own his own home in Biloxi. Reed was also from the same period as Ohr.
The Gehry masterpieces filling the majority of the grounds are influenced by his inimitable ability to draw upon both southern culture and architecture. From the Shoo-Fly on top of the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center, one can gaze across the campus at Gehry’s interpretation of a Southern antebellum staircase, a metal roof reminiscent of a Biloxi cottage, and a church-inspired roof. The architectural design for the upcoming Centers for Ceramics includes a curvy staircase the staff affectionately calls the “Marilyn” because the curves remind them of a certain iconic star.
From rooftop to the bottom floor, the Mississippi Sound Center is a Gehry design through and through, even down to the skewed cabinets.
“Everyone who comes in here wants to straighten them up,” says Gustafson.
This building, which serves as the welcoming center, includes a café open to the public, a gift shop, an Ohr traveling exhibition, and artwork featuring a different Mississippi ceramic artist each month, starting with Helene Fielder in November.
Next door is the IP Casino Resort Spa Exhibitions Gallery, which features rotating exhibits that are changed every six months. Following the innovative theme of art, the museum opening will feature an Andy Warhol series, selected prints and Jun Kaneko’s selected works of massive ceramic heads. Gustafson said that the heads are so large that Kaneko actually builds them in the kiln. He also likes to display them facing each other so they look as if they are engaged in conversation.
The Gallery of African American Art will open with bronze sculptures by Richmond Barthe` featuring “Richmond Barthe`: The Seeker” collection, as well as numerous George Edgar Ohr selections from the Gulf Coast collection.
Perhaps the most renowned structure on campus, however, is the George E. Ohr Gallery “Pods” designed by Gehry. In 2008, Time magazine named the pods as one of the top five architectural designs in the world.
“There are four pods, but it is really one building with four rooms which will be joined with a glass atrium,” Gustafson said. “The pods are the underneath part which you can think of as their slip. The dress is coming later.”
The dress, or covering, she refers to are stainless steel panels with more of a swirling around it. It is the designer’s tribute to Ohr, which is not surprising since Gehry has his own personal collection of the Mad Potter’s pottery. This great focal point will eventually serve to display the museum’s own Ohr pottery collection.
Born in 1857, Ohr, the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” began a pottery apprenticeship in New Orleans with family friend Joseph Meyer. Within a few years, Ohr jumped a freight train and began a zig-zag journey through 16 states to visit all the potters he could find. By 1883, he had returned to Biloxi and began creating his own designs from clay he dug from the nearby Tchouttacabouffa River.
The Mad Potter’s designs are just as eccentric as he seemed to be. Known as a great marketer, his public relations photos revealed much about his quirky character, such as the one of him standing on his head, or the one where his wiry hair and long bushy beard blew severely to the right while his wide eyes appeared stuck to the left of each eye-socket. Yet another photo revealed his eyes and mouth open, while twisted handlebar mustache and beard and the pointed hair on his head formed a bizarre frame around his face. Ohr’s artistic ability to create ceramic shapes with an astonishing thinness has never been matched or duplicated by any other artist., “That was just how he thought,” Gustafson says.
Ohr’s work was not thoroughly embraced by the majority of the art world before his death in 1918, but it certainly piqued the interest of a New Jersey man who stumbled across Ohr’s pottery in a garage in the 1960s. After years of negotiation with Ohr’s surviving family members, in 1972, Jim and Miriam Carpenter purchased some 7,000 Ohr pots and took them to the East Coast where appreciation for his work blossomed. Nationwide showings at notable locations, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, verify that Ohr’s influence on 20th and 21st century art is at last acknowledged.
“The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art will certainly expand Biloxi’s cultural appreciation,” Biloxi Mayor A. J. Holloway said. “Georg Ohr’s unique works of art will reach a whole new audience thanks to the museum being designed by Frank Gehry. That in itself would be enough of an attraction, but once people see that artwork inside, they’ll be knocked over. Frankly, given the eccentricity of each of these artists, they’re quite a fit.”