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A Treasure in Coastal Mississippi

January 15, 2015

Who would expect to find a Frank Gehry-designed art museum in Biloxi, Mississippi? I certainly didn’t.  After going to Biloxi every January for the last six years or so on a mission trip with other friends from my church, I realized this year that I’d never really explored Biloxi’s cultural attractions, which tend to be overshadowed by the many casinos that hug the waterfront. So instead of using my limited free time (a couple of hours one afternoon), I and a couple of friends made a visit to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.

Tucked back from busy Beach Boulevard among stately live oaks, the museum is composed of a main building, a pod of four smaller structures (only one of which was open at this writing), the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center, two other galleries and a ceramics center where classes are held for children and adults. Ohr-O'Keefe

The Ohr who lent his name to the museum was George Ohr (1857-1918), an eccentric ceramic artist who dubbed himself “The Mad Potter of Mississippi.”  He was also an accomplished musician who played the cornet and violin with African-American musician Buddy Bolden, considered by many to be the father of jazz, in New Orleans and Biloxi.

Ohr was a sophisticated craftsman, creating pottery described as “thin as newspaper,” and boasting exquisite colors, in both his glazed and his bisque pieces. Ohr 5                Ohr 4                    Ohr 1        Ohr 2         Ohr 3

In 1884, he sent 600 of his pieces (created over a two-year period) to the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in Atlanta; The pots went missing when he hired someone to return them to Biloxi, and they have never been recovered. A fire ten years later that destroyed downtown Biloxi resulted in loss of even more of his collection; but he rebuilt his studio, and in an explosive burst of creativity over the next ten years produced what is now considered his finest work — unconventional, improvisational, rule-breaking, and sometimes abstract.

In 1910, after unsuccessfully trying to sell his entire collection to one museum  (the Smithsonian offered to buy selected pieces, but not the lot), he packed everything away and asked his heirs to leave it undisturbed until fifty years after his death. A New Jersey antiques dealer purchased the entire body of extant work and in the 1970s began showing it to collectors. At last Ohr started to get the recognition he richly deserved but never attained in his lifetime.

A second and very different exhibit on display was the African Diva Project, paintings by Margaret Rose Vendryes. The fascinating paintings are reproductions of album covers from the likes of Nancy Wilson, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Donna Summer, Eartha Kitt, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, and a slew of other African American female vocalists. The divas’ faces are replaced by African masks, with the actual LP covers on display to aid in identification, and a medley of great songs providing a musical backdrop. (Go to margaretrosevendryes.com.)

Finally, the Art As Form, Art As Function exhibit, featuring the collaborative work of Sarah Qarqish and Morgan Welch, was a feast for the eyes. The installation shown below is made from laser-cut bamboo and is at least 25 feet long. Ohr-O'Keefe 2

Other pieces, similar in technique, are vibrantly colored wall sculptures.

Ohr-O'Keefe 1

I was particularly fascinated by the shadow pattern on the wall behind the large piece.

Ohr-O'Keefe 3

Ohr-O'Keefe 4

Finally, the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center is worth a walk-through. Pleasant Reed, an African American born into slavery, built the house in the 1880s for his wife, Georgia, and their family. The original home and all its furnishings, which had been relocated to the art museum campus, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and a replica built. A short video tells the Reeds’ story, and artifacts throughout paint a picture of a typical Black family living in coastal Mississippi during Reconstruction and beyond.

This museum is truly a treasure in Biloxi, and I look forward to return visits on my annual trip to the Gulf Coast.

From → Art museums

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