Wednesday, January 6, 2010

George Ohr: "The Mad Potter of Biloxi"

"Mozart died a pauper/Heine lived in dread/Foster died in Bellevue/Homer begged for bread/Genius pays off handsomely--/After you are dead"--Yip Harburg

"When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored, and cherished. It will come."--George Ohr

Imagine being the very best at what you do, an innovative trendsetter with boundless energy and creativity. That may sound wonderful but often the Faustian "bargain" that comes with such a tremendous gift is that the rest of the world does not recognize your greatness until long after you have died--Vincent Van Gogh sold just one canvas before he killed himself at the age of 37, yet more than a century after his death one biographer rightly declared that Van Gogh "produced an incredible number of masterpieces that will continue 'living' for the rest of human history."

You have most likely never heard of George Ohr. When he died of throat cancer at the age of 60 in 1918 he was considered--by the few people who even knew who he was--to be a flamboyant eccentric. More than 7000 pieces of pottery that Ohr lovingly created languished in crates stored in the garage of an auto repair shop run by his sons in his native Biloxi, Mississippi. If not for a chance encounter between a New Jersey antiques dealer named James Carpenter and Ohr's son Ojo it is likely that the world would never have known about Ohr's distinctive works.

Although Ohr was mocked during his lifetime and had trouble selling his pottery even to his few admirers, Ohr had boundless confidence. When he set up his wares, Ohr proudly posted a sign that read, "'Greatest' art potter on Earth. 'You' prove it contrary." In a 1901 interview, Ohr acknowledged his lack of commercial success by lamenting "I have a notion...that I am a mistake" but his prescient prediction from that same interview indicates that he knew that the "mistake" was really the lack of insight shown by his contemporaries: "When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored, and cherished. It will come." In his shop, Ohr hung a hand-lettered sign with the Latin phrase Magnus opus, nulli secundus/optimus cognito, ergo sum! (A masterpiece, second to none/The best, therefore, I am!).

How thin is the line between being a genius who is celebrated during his lifetime and a genius who is not recognized as such until long after his death? Consider that Albert Einstein--whose name has become synonymous with the word genius--worked six days a week for seven years as a patent clerk because he could not obtain a full time academic position. During his spare time, Einstein wrote five papers that completely revolutionized the way that we perceive the universe--and yet even after the "annus mirabilis" (miracle year) of 1905 in which Einstein composed and published those papers it took until 1908 before Einstein became a full professor. Wouldn't you love to eavesdrop on some of those job interviews? "We're sorry, Herr Einstein, but you just are not quite qualified to teach at our institution." What must Einstein have thought after being rejected numerous times by people who had just a fraction of his intelligence? A quote from a letter that Einstein wrote during this frustrating period provides a glimpse of how he perceived the academics who refused to hire him: "From now on I’ll no longer turn to such people, and will instead attack them mercilessly in the journals, as they deserve. No wonder little by little one becomes a misanthrope."

Although Einstein had to suffer slings and arrows from many fools, he eventually achieved the fame and respect that he deserved, which provided him what he most wanted--the opportunity to work on his theories in solitude, undisturbed by the rest of the world. The huge advantage that Einstein enjoyed over Van Gogh and Ohr is that it became possible to experimentally verify some of the fantastic theoretical predictions that Einstein made in his 1905 papers; when Arthur Eddington's 1919 eclipse observations confirmed Einstein's assertion that gravity bends light Einstein instantly became a figure of worldwide renown not only in the scientific community but among the general public. Sadly, such instant verification of genius does not exist in the literary or artistic fields.

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