Pottery, Politics, Art: George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick

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Pottery, Politics, Art; George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick. By Richard D. Mohr (Champaign and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Pp. Xii, 225. Illus., appendices, notes, index. Cloth, $60.00).

This is a study of the interrelatedness of two potteries: the all but unknown Anna Pottery of Southern Illinois, owned and operated by Cornwall and Wallace Kirkpatrick, and the other run by the highly-regarded and widely-collected Mad Potter of Biloxi, George Ohr. On one level, the volume presents the history of both potteries, discusses the work each produces, and explores the impact of the earlier and lesser known potters on the other. On a deeper and more profound level, however, this is a study in iconography, symbolism, and an exploration of the reasons for and reception of work of a highly charged and subversive nature.

This volume is quite valuable, not only because the author gives life and form to both the famous George Ohr and the far less-well-known brothers Kirkpatrick, but also for the way that social, political, and historical contexts are teased out of a minimum of written materials. In addition, the author does a masterful job of comparing that meager written record with the work itself and convinces the reader that the local press entirely misconstrued the meaning of the political and social statements the ceramists were making in light of their own institutional agendas. This is particularly true in regard to the work of the Kirkpatricks, whose whimsical, satirical, and seemingly overt imagery is presented as anti-establishment and subversive. Flasks and jugs that have long been regarded as Temperance Movement warnings against drink are shown to have double meanings; works that seem to share the local prejudices against AfricanAmericans and Indians are presented as more sympathetic to their plights; and the flasks incised with maps of the area can be seen as spoofing local pretensions as much as supporting boosterism.

After exploring the work of the Kirkpatricks, their imagery, their role and importance in their region of Southern Illinois, and the nature of their political, social, and psycho-sexual orientations, Mohr moves on to a discussion of the more famous and highly-collected George Ohr. He takes as a given Ohr's importance, and concentrates on both documenting and inferring the influence of the Kirkpatrick's on his oeuvre, and devotes the larger part of this section to the nature of Ohr's fascination with and exploration of the "triple themes of the vascular, the alimentary, and the abject." (154)

Mohr analyzes the work of these potters, explores their deeper meanings, deconstructs the forms, and concludes that "this is a book about the creative confusion of the products of our bodies and the products of our hands." (9) The author is interested in not only the grotesque and the carnivalesque, as curiosities and as examples of political and social subversion, but goes beyond that to establish a theoretical framework for his explorations in the writing and theory of the Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin. …