Golden Gumbo – Digging George Ohr’s Famed Clay
By Bill and Pam Clark, Potters
What an incredible journey to be walking – and rowing – back in history with the descendants of George Ohr.
A few months ago we were honored to be able to dig clay with one of the descendents of George Ohr from the same river bank that George Ohr dug his pottery near Biloxi, Mississippi. As a result, all of our pottery this year is being made using the same clay that George Ohr dug from the banks of the Tchoutacabouffa River.
This journey started years ago for me. I first met Dick and Dot Moran at the George Ohr family reunion in Biloxi in 2009. They asked me to give a presentation to the whole family at their reunion on the many unique features of George Ohr’s pottery. Both Dick and Dot are direct descendants of George Ohr. Last year they formally welcomed me into the family and thanked me for continuing the work of George Ohr.
Since that time, we have become good friends with the Moran’s. Dick brings out part of his collection of George Ohr pottery and lets me handle and study them for a while. Many things are becoming clearer about how George Ohr made his work. I will talk about this during next week’s Arts and Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn during my Small Group Discussion on Saturday, February 18th at 4:30pm.
Early in 2011, Dick and I visited the gravesite of George Ohr at the Biloxi cemetery, where we made five gravestone rubbings. At that time we decided to take a voyage of discovery as to how George Ohr was able to make his paper-thin pottery. Dick has told me many stories about Ohr, his work and his family history that you could not find in any books. One of the things he and I discussed was where George Ohr dug the clay he used to make such thin, twisted pieces, clay he called his “gumbo.”
In November of 2011, our plans, timing and good weather fell into place for Dick and I to go on our journey to find the source of George Ohr’s “gumbo.” Using a modern boat and outboard motor, it still took Dick and I nearly two hours to get to the dig site from the location that George Ohr would have debarked from on the south side of the Biloxi bay. Dick estimated that with no wind it would have taken George Ohr almost a full day just to get to where we located the clay, in the beautiful country back in the bayou along the banks of the Tchoutacabouffa River. The entire excursion would have amounted to a two- to three-day journey for George Ohr with his row boat and oars.
I thought about many things on our trip up the Tchoutacabouffa River. The most outstanding was George’s persistent determination to manually row a large boat such a long distance to gather this particular clay. And that was only the beginning. Once he got it back to his studio, he had to dry it, grind it up to a fine powder, and then screen it for debris, rocks and sand. Next, he used his mule drawn pug mill to remix the clay with water, then he forced out the air by ‘wedging’ the wet clay. I contend that he also dried it down a bit to make it last longer on his wheel to get the thinner pieces. But, as Dick has told me, there are other mysteries in the clay that I did not know about before this trip. I can tell you that the number one culprit that George complained about to his relatives was the sand content in some of the clay he dug.
Today, most potters use commercially prepared clay that has been finely processed, including ‘calcining,’ which uses heat to destroy all of the organic materials. Modern processing methods also make the clay particles a more even size. That is important for fast uniform drying of the clay used in commercial. These modern processing methods would destroy many of the organic materials found in Ohr’s river clay, that also has a wide range of particle sizes, supporting, I contend, a thinner body structure.
To illustrate, I can make two pots of the same size: one made from commercial clay and one from naturally dug clay, and set them next to each other to dry. The commercial clay piece will dry twice as fast as the natural clay, something that would have hindered Ohr as he needed the extra time and organic materials to create his thin-bodied vases.
The clay Dick and I dug that day is now back in the studio here in South Carolina, making its way into every piece we form. I am excited to begin my journey this year with historical clay and the support of great friends like the Moran’s who made it possible.
See you at the Grove Park Inn!!!
– Bill & Pam Clark
Clark House Pottery LLC.
Top: Is it Ohr or Clark House pottery? (Answer: Clark House)
Lower: Bill Clark strikes an Ohr-like pose.
To see additional photos from Bill and Pam’s journey, please go to https://artsandcraftscollector.com/show_and_tell/.