The November-December 2021 issue of The TAMS Journal from the Token and Medal Society has a fascinating article by Ellen Lippert about the pottery of George Orr. At my request editor Greg Burns kindly forwarded text and images for this excerpt of the article, republished here with permission.
The pottery of George Ohr is captivating. Deformed and manipulated shapes that sag and bulge are often coated in vibrant glazes that bubble, run, or ooze. Their lopsided statures and crumpling physiques possess an irreverent liveliness made all the more apparent when placed alongside the stoic Greek and Chinese pottery forms that were popular during Ohr's time. Mirroring these unique wares is the potter himself, whose personality and life story is just as vibrant, irreverent, and, now, legendary.
Ohr in his pottery workshop
Existing within his famed oeuvre are lesser studied objects often termed
trinkets. Among these are a small collection of six clay tokens bearing crude and highly sexualized messages made of letters, numbers, and images. Despite their provocative nature and famous maker they remain almost completely unstudied. This article will trace Ohr's history as a potter, businessman, and self-promoter during the last quarter of the nineteenth century in order to provide a better context from which to examine his provocative collection of six clay tokens.
George Ohr was a potter from Biloxi, MS, who lived from 1856 to 1918. Much of the information we know about Ohr comes from his brief two-page 1901 autobiography titled
Some Facts in the History of a Unique Personality in which he lays out his life from birth until the year 1883. From the start Ohr presents himself as different, labeling himself the
lone duck of the family, despite having four siblings.
Throughout his early years Ohr struggled to find his calling and purpose, bouncing between jobs that never lasted long and didn't suit him. However, in 1880 Ohr received a letter from family friend and well-known potter Joseph Meyer offering to teach him the potting trade in New Orleans. After receiving Meyer's invitation Ohr states he
stole a freight train at 11:65, and p.d.q went under the night and over terra firma. According to Ohr, when he found the potter's wheel
I felt it all over like a wild duck in water and from that moment on dedicated his life to making pottery.
In 1908, at the age of 52, Ohr stopped producing work. With money he received from an inheritance, Ohr bought a car dealership and went into business with his sons. He boxed up his wares and tucked them away in the attic of the dealership.
This is where his pottery remained for half a century until New Jersey antiques dealer James Carpenter discovered his trove in the 1960s. He bought the entire collection, rumored to be between 6,000 and 10,000 pots and launched Ohr onto New York's art world stage. Since then Ohr's pottery has enjoyed much more critical and popular attention. His wares routinely fetch multiple thousands of dollars at auction, some as much as $100,000 and more. No less than seven books (including my own) and scores of articles have been written on Ohr in the last few decades and the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently acquired a significant collection of Ohr's pots from noted ceramics collector Robert Ellison who died in 2021. Ohr's pots have even been collected by well-known artists like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, who used them in several of his artworks. Indeed, over the past sixty years Ohr has emerged as a major figure in American art.
Ohr's story is one of legend: the misunderstood potter dedicated to his craft gives up in frustration only to have his wares discovered and posthumously praised and valued.
The entirety of Ohr's token collection consists of six double-sided clay coins bearing pictures, words, and numbers combined to form twelve messages, all crudely sexual. Some coins have ridged perimeters while others are smooth, suggesting at least two different casts.
Very little is known about these tokens. None of the coins are signed or dated, which was Ohr's custom for much of his art pottery. There is no information on how they were distributed: were they sold or handed out? In sets or individually? Further there is no definitive information about when Ohr started making them or how many are even in existence, though prominent Ohr collector, the late Marty Shack, has stated
[b]esides the sixty odd sets I bought from the family I would doubt if another twenty sets survived. This approximation would put the number of individual coins made somewhere between 360 and 480. Ohr's tokens can still be collected, but a complete set doesn't fetch anywhere near as much as a highly collectable art pot though prices for Ohr's tokens have been increasing.
It is unknown (and unlikely) that Ohr ever made much money from his coins. There is no record that they were purchased as his art pottery was purchased. However, like a business card handed out at a convention, Ohr's coins associated the frenzied mustached potter, and thus his wares, with the fantasy of Storyville and suggests that Ohr's tokens were yet another means of promotion that Ohr perceptively utilized.
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