Friday, April 8, 2016

John Mosler and Jean Won Mosler

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Make a gazillion bucks on Wall Street, climb out of the snake pit and become a something else totally unrelated to the world of filthy lucre. For some reason, not many people in finance make that break, even though—we’re guessing—many lie awake at night plotting their escape. It should be easy but somehow it’s not—and even now that sculptor John Mosler has committed himself full time to making art, he says he still lies awake at night, at times tempted to go back to the money. He doesn’t. Together he and his wife, designer, Jean Won Mosler, founder of Maum Design, put pretty much everything they had into transforming an industrial building in Gowanus, Brooklyn, so … now they have to make it work. “I’m an artist who needs to sell art … the place is purpose-built and it isn’t made to sell on to the next guy.”

You were brought up, as you put it, being “directed to be successful” but as a kid did you really want to be doing something more like this?

No, not even remotely. At Princeton, my best friend encouraged me to take a class with Toshiko (Toshiko Takaezu, the ceramic artist and John’s mentor) … it was kind of like “rocks for jocks”. But she commanded intention and integrity. Then I discovered this natural connection to making art. All of a sudden I was making these crazy things. The fact that it comes out of me so naturally is the best high I could ever imagine. It’s like a miracle.

But most people, if they haven’t been creative in their earlier years, are often nervous about being creative. They feel exposed.

That’s why this is happening right now. But I was creative in my previous career—we were solving puzzle problems, only with very creative tools.
Entering the expansive front gallery of the John Mosler Works Gallery. Ceramist and sculptor John Mosler and his wife, designer Jean Won Mosler, founder of Maum Design, converted a 6,000 square foot industrial building in Gowanus, Brooklyn into a generous gallery, studio, courtyard, entertaining area, office and upstairs lounge. Interior details include a modern fireplace, concrete radiant floors, a structural glass staircase railing as well as an aluminum frosted glass storefront for privacy.
Three of John’s sculptures, Timido, 2015, Benignus, 2015 and Age is Beauty, 2015, were part of his fall exhibition entitled “The Spaces Within”. Shows of John’s work take place in situ, which, by Jean’s design, was always intended to incorporate a studio, an exhibition space and a hangout space, so as to create a contemporary version of salon-style gatherings.
A close-up: Timido, 2015, displayed in front of the frosted glass storefront.
A lot of people might not have seen Wall Street at that time as “creative”.

But you have to remember that it was the way the tools were used, not the tools themselves.

We’ve noticed over time that the definition of “creative” increasingly seems to have expanded to include the idea problem solving …

Yes, but with very complex tools. It was (always) in me — but in that medium (Wall Street and finance). I was quite eccentric in that other medium too. I was doing many things that were quite unusual.

What sorts of things were those?

Playing rugby. I got injured as a wrestler …
A sun-filled upstairs lounge where John can take time out during long kiln firings.  Jean wanted to bring a pop of color into the room with brightly colored furniture from Ligne Roset.
Jean designed this custom-built media and entertainment center built by Alan Moshe of Alan Craft Millworking.
The upstairs lounge with 9-foot glass sliding doors opens up to a large outdoor terrace, perfect for summer entertaining.  The flooring is Trex Material Deck.
Views of Gowanus from the upstairs terrace.
Ceramic plates by Peter Voulkos hang on the far wall. In the seating area of the upstairs lounge the rug, the “Ploum” sofa and a “Neo Rocking Chair” are all from Ligne Roset.
On a chest of drawers in the upstairs loft area: wedding photos, a work by John, Untitled, 1995 and a sculpture by Manuel Neri.
John’s Study in Red, 2010 stands in front of “Paradisical Flower” wallpaper by Timorous Beasties.
There were other sports you could have picked that might have been a bit easier on you than that.

Actually a lot of people transition into rugby from football and other sports, especially at Princeton.

Jean, did you focus on creative work when you were at college?

Jean: I came from a science background. When I first went to school I studied chemical engineering; I was on a pre-med track. With my parents being immigrants, they really wanted me to be either a doctor or lawyer. It was all I was exposed to but one summer I had to take a pre-med requisite in organic chemistry. I said to my parents, if I’m going to do this, then you’re going to send me to London and I’m going to take a British theater and a 20th century literature class.

And what happened in London?

Well, I started going to museums every day and looking at architecture. I sort of realized when I came back, that engineering wasn’t for me. I wanted to do something that moved people in the way that the art I had seen, moved me.
Jean designed and curated the mixed wall art: Benignus, 2015 (left) and Age is Beauty 2012 as well as works by Shirin Neshat and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Twelve-foot high glass folding doors allow for transformation and division of the front gallery space from the rear entertainment area.
The front room is intended to be multifunctional and can be transformed from gallery to meeting space with a hidden presentation screen. The extendable ‘Bianco' table is from Ligne Roset. The stacking chairs are by Tolix.
Jean designed the placement and selection of John’s sculptures: Willy Mammoth, 2015, Decernebat Identitalem, 2015, Red Difinitude, 2015, Emprimere Temetipsum!, 2015 and Mollis Fiducia, 2015. On the wall above John’s sculptures is a work by Richard Serra.
It’s interesting that both of you kind of defied parental expectations but I’m not sure that these things, finance and engineering, are necessarily incompatible with design and sculpture.

Jean: They can really work hand in hand.

John: I think in my previous career … er, what’s the best way to put it … it turned out that I was quite good with puzzles and intuition and problem solving. It was unknown to me that this [making art] was the fundamental passion.

What did you learn from your mentor [Toshiko Takaezu]?

Her process is very subtle – it’s more of [learning] how to open up to your own creativity. She taught me how to make coils and … go! It just came naturally. It was in me. Once a year she would say, “Ah … that piece!” Once she looked at one of my pieces and she said, “You should make the inside out.” That was a three-year project … and just when I thought I had mastered coils, she said, “No more coils.”
The Spark fireplace is a focal point; the walled surround is covered in “Collection Mutina” tile by Patricia Urquiola. A yellow ottoman and ottoman lounge chair are from Ligne Roset; the coffee table is from ABC Carpet and the ‘Touch Me' rug is by Stepevi. John’s sculpture, Fiducia, 2014 and Herc, 2015 are displayed as accent points bookending the fireplace ledge.
Looking across the coffee table displaying John’s sculpture Circino, 2015. On the rear wall is a landscape photograph by Elger Esser. Merce, the couple’s Brussels Griffin, relaxes on the ottoman.
A wall sculpture by Jeanne Silverthorne hangs above a ceramic work by Tashiko Takaezu.
A shelf and wall by Valcucine is curated with a selection of art including ceramic works collected over the years. In the foreground is a sculpture fired in an Anagama wood kiln.
John’s Complexus, 2012.
How did you experience the move from the results-oriented bottom line business you were in to this, where, from a creative standpoint, there is never really any kind of bottom line?

I am … um … it’s a very interesting thing. Are there an infinite number of ideas? Yes. Am I fulfilled at the completion of a piece? Yes. I don’t finish it unless I find that moment when it’s time to walk away. That’s very hard to find but it’s part of the gift because I see that moment.

What is hard about working with clay?

I’m doing things with clay that clay does not want to do. My vision is for these things to be made very large scale. You have to come up with a material that is plastic enough to bend to the shape and strong enough to hold the form. I would say there’s sort of a mix of spontaneity and tension. I’m also very influenced by steel.

There is a bit of Richard Serra to some of them, or perhaps will be when they’re made into large sculptures.

I would say Serra on steroids.
A view across John's studio.
A photograph of the renowned ceramic artist Toshiko Takaezu, John’s mentor and teacher hangs prominently in the studio.
A rear view of John’s studio. All of the workstations are hydraulic and mobile.
A new body of work-in-progress.
Are you able to say what it is that you’re trying to express?

In many ways these are figurative forms. While they may not look like that, I’m into mythology and storytelling. A piece up there is called Achilles. These pieces are often about life and struggle but then in the end, what comes out is this beautiful object. There’s a Helen Keller quote about continuing the adventure, continuing to seek, [that] is success. Some people have had an easier ride than I have.

A lot of people might think that you’ve had a pretty easy ride.

Yeah … it’s not true. I’m self-made, okay? There is the connection to the Mosler Safe Company but my side of the family didn’t wind up with any of the support.
A sculpture by John that was fired in the Anagama wood kiln of artist Chris Gustin. The piece was covered in molten ash for eight days.
John’s tools are selected and laid out for current work projects.
An early sculpture by John stands next to a Pug Mill clay mixer.
Customized Blaauw Kilns, include an electric kiln (left), a gas kiln (right) and in the center, the largest individual kiln ever built by Blaauw to date.
Various sculptures by John, some still in-the-works and some finished pieces are on display atop steel shelves in a corner of the studio.
A body of work by John from the Per Aspera Ad Astra Show in the spring of 2015 stands in another corner of the studio. Captain America is the protector of the kiln.
John’s sculptures from the beginning (1990) to the present.
John’s early test tiles from his time at Toshiko Takaezu’s studio.
So while you’ve been speaking, I’ve written here “ambitious?”

Jean: I’ve always had this feeling because I grew up in the United States and my parents were so tied to Korea, I’ve always felt that I needed to make my own way and to be self-sufficient. When I got to college, [my parents] were very helpful in supporting me but I realized that support has a lot of power. I haven’t been supported by them since I was, like, 20 years old.

So lying awake at night … how much worrying goes on?


John: I worry. Sometimes I get these calls for the easy way [back into finance] and I have three days of worrying. Then I get back into the studio and start making the work, and I’m like, “Forget that.”
Merce, named after the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Merce and McDuff, the couple's Brussels Griffons, pose for Jeff ...
How did you meet each other?

Jean: We met on a blind date.

John: No, no, no.  I wouldn’t call it a blind date.

Jean: It was a forced set up … technically it was a true blind date.