Here in culturally rich New Orleans we easily forget about our artsy neighbors to the east. However, the short drive to Biloxi is a safe bet, whether one gambles or not, for an enlightening getaway celebrating the South and its creative heritage.
Last weekend I toured the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, discovering the wholly original, undulating and unpredictable, though recognizable, pots of George Ohr, collected and displayed within an equally unconventional building, an architectural phenomenon, certainly in the South, built by Frank Gehry. (See the building in a related Gambit story, “Remembering Old Biloxi.”)
Within seconds of entering, however, it wasn’t the Ohr pots or Gehry structure that caught my eye, but rather a vivid blue horse by Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), the famed painter who also formed pots and shapes with clay as part of his family’s Shearwater Pottery.
I wandered through generations of Shearwater Pottery to the equally distinct Newcomb Art Pottery, so familiar to us in New Orleans, along with the crabs and fish of Singing River, all part of “Earth, Sea & Sky: Southern Ceramics from the Dod Stewart Collection” (through June 2, 2012).
Distracted by the quality and quantity in this temporary exhibition, I almost forgot the real prize, the George Ohr pots displayed beneath his enlarged photographs, as though the ‘Mad Potter’ himself smiles at this long-overdue recognition.
George Ohr (1857-1918) apprenticed as a young potter in New Orleans with Joseph F. Meyer. He became an eccentric in the Biloxi community, controversial in his lifetime and rediscovered decades later as ahead-of-his-time.
“When I found the potter’s wheel,” he wrote, “I felt it all over like a wild duck in water.”
Last weekend I also stumbled on the exhibition “One World, Two Artists: John Alexander & Walter Anderson” (the same Walter Anderson of the blue horse above), at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, on view through April 30, 2012. Curated by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, this is the same exhibition on view in New Orleans last year. As often happens when paintings change settings, however, the paintings themselves appear altered.
A New Yorker originally from Beaumont, Texas, John Alexander (b. 1945) pulls the viewer into his large canvases of natural, yet somehow unnatural settings, teasing us within paintings both seductive and unsettling.
Anderson, however, despite his purported mental instability, is anything but unstable within his paintings. Rather, he records in the immediate, embracing mindfulness head-on, as though the birds themselves held his paintbrush. It’s said that he “lashed himself to a tree” during Hurricane Betsy on Horn Island off of Ocean Springs, one of many similar accounts of a man who risked death to live and create within the moment.
The comparison seemed strange, as I imagined the huge fabricated Alexanders against the jewel-like journalistic Andersons. And yet the show surprises, choosing carefully Alexander’s studies of birds and plant-life, almost Audubon-like, in a collection that complements more than contrasts. This is especially evident in the tiny Ocean Springs Museum, an intimate setting within a former house, as opposed to the large walls of the Ogden. The exhibition, to me, looks remarkably fresh.
As I strolled in and out of the shops in Ocean Springs, purchasing art books and a few pottery wine goblets, I thought about our tremendous fortune here in the South. Whether literature, music or art, we are culturally wealthy and have been for many years. It was in the Community Center, its walls covered in a mural by Walter Anderson, who charged $1 for the job and tried in vain to involve his hometown in his project, that I remembered how important it is that we support the Arts, especially the ones sprouted in our backyards.
“The artist lives between assistance and opposition and is first overwhelmed by one and then both together—then is reduced to the ranks and is told that the gods help those who help themselves. So that he usually ends up living almost entirely on stolen fruit.” – Walter Inglis Anderson*
*Anderson reference: Dreaming in Clay on the Coast of Mississippi. By Christopher Maurer with Maria Estrella Iglesias. Published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. 2000
*Ohr reference: George Ohr, Art Potter: The Apostle of Individuality. By Robert A. Ellison Jr. with Martin Eidelberg (foreword). Published by Scala Publishers, 2006