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.
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 …
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.