Clay Culture: Moh, Please!

1 A row of Sebastian Moh’s tumblers at The Kiln Studio and Gallery.

 

Not only is Sebastian Moh a talented ceramic artist, he’s also a very good cook. After gallery owner Susie Bowman learned of his combined talents, the two joined forces and embarked upon a successful, and delicious, collaboration.

This past November, ten lucky people signed up to be a part of a special evening with ceramic artist and chef, Sebastian Moh. Susie Bowman, owner of The Kiln Studio and Gallery in Fairhope, Alabama, arranged a different kind of opening weekend for a gallery exhibition that featured events on two separate days. The first day included a tour of the area and the opening. The second day included a dinner prepared by Moh, an accomplished Asian chef, and served on dishes made by himself and other ceramic artists for the event.

Born in Batu Pahat, Malaysia, Sebastian Moh came to the US 25 years ago to study art, and after gaining a BA in product design at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he ultimately moved to Louisville, Kentucky. His love for working with clay led him to pursue ceramics as a living, and his quiet yet profound pieces have won him devoted collectors and led to exhibitions far and wide. In the meantime, his love for cooking has kept his hands in the restaurant industry, and he has managed and served at fine Asian restaurants where he honed his culinary skills.

He and Bowman came up with the idea to merge his two passions into an art event. Moh had once before prepared a meal in a similar private setting, and it sparked the idea for the event with The Kiln Studio. Bowman loved the idea of connecting an audience with functional ceramic objects by using them for their intended purpose rather than just seeing them in a gallery setting. The event was publicized through the gallery’s social network and email announcements and several of The Kiln Studio’s followers quickly filled the spots.

On the day before the dinner, a few guests who arrived early were invited for a shoreline walk led by local artist Zach Sierke to see the remains of old kiln sites and clay deposits, remnants from a time in the 1800s when a third of the local population was employed in the pottery industry. It’s not an exaggeration to say that pottery shards and broken kiln bricks make up a good deal of the beach rocks. A steep cliff of clay in colors of rust, mustard, pink, lavender, and chalk-white rises up from the shore, and we gathered buckets of choice pieces. Moh gathered enough to slow him down a bit. That evening the exhibition of Moh’s work at The Kiln Studio opened to good crowds and sales.

2 The table service before the dinner festivities began.

3 Dinner plate by Lynnette Hesser, bowl by Sebastian Moh.

 

The next morning Moh was in the markets gathering ingredients for the big dinner, which would be held at Bowman’s house on the bay. Various types of meat, fish, and vegetables filled the back of his car, along with a box of Asian specialty foods, including galangal (a spicy root similar to ginger) and ma-la sauce (a Chinese favorite that numbs the tongue and lips like a trip to the dentist’s office), which he brought from Louisville. An afternoon of vegetable chopping began soon after lunch, with occasional trips to the backyard to fill baskets with satsumas, garlic chives, kumquats, and herbs. A lively afternoon of food preparation led to the introduction of a few new and interesting foods to the vocabulary and taste buds of the volunteer assistants.

As guests arrived, we found early on that almost all of ten of us (from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) owned small art businesses that offer pottery classes. It was apparent there would be plenty to talk about. From the beginning guests were warmed by Moh’s gentle demeanor and perpetual humor.

The Tableware

The dinner service, a carefully thought-out and integral part of the event, included ceramic pieces by Moh and other regional ceramic artists. Sebastian’s intentions for a relationship between the food and the dinnerware was clear and simple. There was no specific pairing of plates with food planned, so an all white service had been decided upon to highlight the food and leave the ceramic artists plenty of room to express their vision while keeping the service coherent.

Months before, Bowman invited a handful of artists to create two white dinner plates each for the meal. The resulting collection by artists Lynnette Hesser, Annette Gates, and Laura Rust was eclectic in style but cohesive in color. The white plates were accented with Moh’s smooth, blue chun glazed bowls and creamy candle holders by Bowman. A botanical theme emerged in the dinnerware without collaboration, which was in keeping with the Mobile Bay setting.

 

The Food Courses

Most of the guests had been somewhat prepared for the excellence of Moh’s cooking through Facebook posts over the past few months that showed tempting photos and descriptions of meals. As he prepared and served food all evening, with eight courses in all, our months of waiting were satisfied while we asked questions, watched his hands fly, poked our heads into steaming pots, took photos, and enjoyed conversations about cooking and clay.

A first course of Vietnamese summer rolls with a tamarind sauce was as rewarding to see prepared as it was to eat. Other courses moved through different Asian cultures and a variety of flavors that were absolutely new to even some of the more dedicated foodies in the bunch. Numbing ma-la sauce surprised everyone, and each course required a lesson in new foods to one or more guests at the table. The courses included a Patagonian toothfish soup with tomatoes and lemongrass, Gulf shrimp dumplings with Chinese cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, Shanghai-style noodles with grated ginger and caramelized spring onion oil, and pan-seared beef and zucchini, soaked in Sichuan ma-la oil and spicy broth. Preparation left just enough time between courses for our stomachs to rest and our conversation to become livelier.

Plenty of our talk extolled the talents of Moh’s work at the stove and at the potter’s wheel. His pottery is elegant and well crafted, with a meditative subtlety that gives a nod to Asian culture without being timid. He embraces imperfection without using it as an excuse to cut corners. His glazes and forms are inseparably married in their intentions, and his personality manifests clearly in his work.

4 Sebastian Moh relishing his day of chopping in the kitchen.

 

His gastronomic art and its preparation bring forth the same characteristics. The meal was, like his ceramic work, full of tradition but with delightful surprises. It didn’t scream new or fancy. It was comfort food with just enough unusual combinations to evoke a touch of the exotic and adventurous.

At the end of the meal Moh sat with us, clearly worn out but utterly in his element. The artful, celebratory nature of the meal and its presentation brought an enlivened spirit to the table that sparked curiosity and questions. It was one of the best parts of the experience to hear guests ask him about his ceramics, about the food, and about having a career in both fields. Sebastian’s most asked question was, “Will you do this again?” His reply was an enthusiastic “Yes.” As everyone at the table was involved in the ceramics business in some way, and after bonding through our evening together, talking shop became something sacred.

From a business standpoint, the event aroused more attention than an exhibit alone would have, and led to more sales before and after the event for Sebastian and the other artists featured. The special, exclusive nature of the event garnered more talk and questions among all who heard about it, which enticed both more immediate interest and long-term impact for the gallery and artists. The social media campaign that accompanied the event enabled even those who couldn’t attend a way to spread buzz and be a part of the excitement.

5 Guests enjoying lively discussions of clay and food.

6 Sebastian Moh serving one of the many dishes he prepared.

 

In the end, the event delivered the very best that art has to offer in a place with a connection to US ceramic history. Collectively, the artists’ ceramic work held the feast that fed guests in mind, spirit, and body. His food embellished an artful table with one gorgeous and delicious exhibit after another. The most wonderful result was the moment-by-moment experience of laughter, community, discovery, and pleasure that great art brings.

the author Dori DeCamillis is a painter, author, and owner of Red Dot Gallery in Birmingham, Alabama with along her husband, ceramic artist Scott Bennett. See more of her work and career at http://reddotgallery.com.

 

Subscriber Extras: Extra Images

Click here to view the archive article, “2013 Emerging Artist: Sebastian Moh,” which was originally in the May 2013 issue.

Moh’s minimal, well-proportioned, accessible forms showcase his striking glazes while also maintaining a focus on utility. The glazes are seductive, and the initial pull is rewarded as the intense depth of the surface emerges on closer inspection.

1 Red dots teabowl, 3½ in. (9 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown porcelain, fired to cone 9 in oxidation then refired to cone 7 in oxidation. Photo: Bob Payne.

2 Teabowl, wheel-thrown porcelain, 4 in. (10 cm) in diameter fired to cone 9 in oxidation. Photo: Bob Payne.

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