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Biloxi, Madmen and the Dixie Mafia

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But to return to Hurricane Camille, Biloxi's recovery from her trail of destruction was slow, but the struggling city got a major boast in 1992 when the state of Mississippi legalized dockside gambling, a rather disingenuous way of appeasing the gambling prohibitionists by claiming to keep the casinos off solid land. Nine barge-based casino resorts quickly sprang up (although not all of them right on the central beachfront), their sudden presence simply exploding the tourism and construction industries in Biloxi, but also waving, metaphorically speaking, a big red flag at Mother Nature with the emblazoned words, "Hit me, b*tch". Scarcely a dozen years later, every casino was reeling from or destroyed by Katrina. One could state, at least rhetorically, that a certain level of insanity prevails in Biloxi to have dared the elements like this in the first place.

The Mad Potter

The eccentric & extroverted Mr. Ohr/

Speaking of insanity, part of Biloxi's attraction, much like New Orleans, is the unique individuals it has engendered in the past, with perhaps none more amazing than George Edgar Ohr, whose legacy actually plays a part in the catastrophe of Biloxi at the hands of Katrina. Ohr, who was born in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1857, was destined to become the dean of American potters, not merely in the utilitarian sense, but in the artistic sense. As a young man in 1879, he became apprenticed to the master potter Joseph Meyer in New Orleans, quickly absorbing what Meyer could teach him, taking to pottery like a duck takes to water, to paraphrase his own self-appraisal. George returned to Biloxi some three years later to open his own business, and was so prolific that by the time of the World ¹s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans in 1884, he was able to exhibit some 600 pieces.

Ohr was always prolific, always innovative, and taken to showcasing his wares far and wide at all manner of fairs and expositions. Some of his pieces were entirely utilitarian, meant for the kitchen and housewife, while others were purely expressionistic works of art. He continued to associate with and learn from the New Orleans artistic pottery movement, so his work and artistic development gravitated between the Big Easy and Biloxi for years. He fully embraced the mantra of "no two alike", meaning every piece must be unique, an idea first proffered by his associates in the Newcomb College Art Department in New Orleans.

George was also dauntless, rising Phoenix-like several times over from personal disasters, such as the fire that swept through Biloxi in 1894 that destroyed his business and some 10,000 plus pieces. But he had recovered enough by 1904 that he would win a silver metal at that year's St Louis World's Fair. Even so, Ohr, like many artists, felt underappreciated and misunderstood, and this perhaps helped to shape his extravagantly extroverted, wryly humorous and eccentric character, as he traveled about sporting a huge handlebar moustache and styling himself "The Mad Potter of Biloxi". If nothing else, this was a unique way of advertising himself before the public. He was outspoken, anarchistic, and shamelessly self-promotional, proclaiming himself the world's greatest potter, unrivalled and unequalled. Although this might sound rather vain, it was also true during his era, for even today experts marvel at his technical proficiency and limitless creativity, as if his skills verged on magical powers. His works are honored today both in the Smithsonian Museum and around the world.

George was also prolific in terms of children, his wife Josephine bearing ten of them, although only five survived into adulthood, a not uncommon ratio in those days. His many descendents have retained a strong presence in Biloxi, which is where his great-grandson John Morykwas steps into the picture as we regard the curious phenomenon of the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum versus Hurricane Katrina.

The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum

A shattered pavillion of the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art

The twisted mass of steel and debris you see in the above photograph was supposed to be part of the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, an actual, nearly completed museum campus of five Frank Gehry-designed pavilions immersed in four acres of oak trees, Gehry, of course, being the famous architect of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, among other masterworks. The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum, which Katrina turned into steel pretzels, was an ambitious and certainly eye-catching $16 million project that would be situated at "the Point", just west of Casino Row on the beachfront and just north of Highway 90 (Beach Blvd). In other words, the site picked is a stone's throw from the Gulf of Mexico, which, one would think after Biloxi's negative experience with Camille, would give the city pause as to the wisdom of such a locale. However, Biloxi had already been seduced by the establishment of lucrative Casino barges, so this, evidently, was intended to be the pièce de resistance on the beachfront, a tourist magnet and artistic triumph, probably a really great idea anywhere else. The campus would also showcase an African-American Art Gallery, a very worthy cultural goal in an area devoid of much emphasis on the history and accomplishments of blacks.

Frankly, as John Morykwas explains it, the allure of money has always been a deciding factor in Biloxi politics, and George Ohr's name and pottery artifacts have become as good as gold along the Gulf Coast now. In fact, according to John, the influence of big money is reflected in the title of the Museum itself, because, as he relates, the very name O'Keefe was incorporated into it after former Biloxi mayor Jerry O'Keefe gave one million dollars of his wife's estate to the Museum. But this is how you get your name on the marquee in a lot of places these days.

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John himself is rather cynical about the entire project, because he and his relatives have been largely ignored by the Museum's directors. Neither they nor the younger members of the O'Keefe family, he claims, have had any dealings with the Museum project. Furthermore, he charges, the Museum even tried to trademark the Ohr family name at one point.

John has, in the past, tried to be cooperative with the city in promoting Ohr's legacy, even loaning them his photo album of George Ohr's works. However, to his dismay, five photographs turned up missing and have not been recovered to this day. The Ohr descendents also argued for putting the Museum on safer ground, on Ohr family property, but the movers and shakers in Biloxi gravitated toward the glitter and glamour of the beachfront, an attraction, it turned out, as deadly as the allure of the Greek Sirens for spellbound sailors. The ironic thing about all this is that the Mad Potter himself hated politicians, being rather anarchistic, and is likely rolling about in his grave as politicians and investors in Mississippi and beyond try to take advantage of his legacy.

John explained how a local judge even tried to enforce a capricious injunction against him to basically steal some of the Ohr family collection, so John's situation has become not unlike that of an eagle or hawk attempting to protect the family nest from predators, human or otherwise. We are almost back to the law of the wild here.

A piece from John's private George Ohr collection. Photo by John

John actually has a dream of creating his own George Ohr Family Museum and Foundation, and he and other relatives have large enough collections to do so. Time will tell if he can realize this dream, but he may still have to compete with the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum, which has recently settled with its insurer for the bulk of the original 18.6 million dollar risk policy. The Museum has also just recently been declared eligible for assistance from FEMA in better fortifying the campus, if such a thing is possible at the water's edge when a Category Three or higher hurricane hits. Rebuilding can now begin in earnest. Whether or not Mother Nature knocks it back down is another matter.

Surrealism in Biloxi

Right now there is tremendous surrealism around and about Biloxi, for the city is like a wasteland and Disneyland rolled into one. You will see what I mean when you look at my photo album, "Mad Potters, Sinners and Saviors: Biloxi after Katrina", which contains 231 of the shots I took in May. You are invited to do so simply by clicking on and just hitting "View Slide Show". You don't have to sign in.

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Because of the powerful economic engine of the already greatly rebuilt casinos, money is pouring into Biloxi, but the money is largely enabling those businesses and industries most relevant to the casino resorts: tourism, restaurants, transportation, seafood, high-end entertainment, etc. Biloxi, because of the casinos' wealth, is luckier than other coastal cities devastated by Katrina. But still, the rebuilding is haphazard and chaotic. So you find, on street after street, strange juxtapositions of glittering neon and luxurious opulence with abandoned shells of businesses or massive piles of concrete debris and twisted steel. Once again, as with other Gulf towns and cities, there is no evident, centrally coordinated rebuilding strategy that responds to the needs of all sectors of society. Billions more dollars are needed to uplift the citizenry of Biloxi, many of whom are still surviving in FEMA trailers. Of course, we all know where all the money is going: for militarism and war that serves the needs of the rapacious plutocracy of this country and little else, no matter how many bromides about defending the homeland they toss at us like dog bones. This is the homeland, and it has already been wrecked, so why are we colonizing Iraq and calculating how to attack Iran when there is so much pain and suffering right here that needs to be addressed?

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I am a student of history, religion, exoteric and esoteric, the Humanities in general and a tempered advocate for the ultimate manifestation of peace, justice and the unity of humankind through self-realization and mutual respect, although I am not (more...)

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