The Ethic of Work & Play | Ayla Mullen | Episode 817

Ayla Mullen | Episode 817

Ayla Mullen has a BA in Environmental Political Theory and Ceramics from Marlboro College, and completed a 2 year apprenticeship with Ellen Shankin in Floyd, VA. Now a full time studio artist, Ayla makes wheel-thrown functional pottery with botanically inspired surface designs. She recently hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and moved her home and studio to Bellingham, WA.


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You were raised farming. When working with clay how do you plan for the harvest and how do you plan for the drought?

Wow, that’s a great question. It’s interesting because…not that I don’t plan because I definitely do and I try and think ahead financially and plan out how many times I am going to fire in a year and what that’s going to look like and what my avenues for selling my work are. But I also take after my mom in that she had this incredible level of trust, she would always just say, I am going to do everything I can and then I am going to trust that it’s going to workout. And she is one of those people who is extremely resourceful and can really figure out any problem that comes up and I feel like there was this flow state that she would get into where the drought comes along or some huge problem, the farm floods , whatever happens happens and instead of feeling anxious about it in advance she would just be like, Yup, we are going to figure it out. And then she would just tackle what was right in front of her and make really smart choices and work it out. She trusted her own abilities when she needed them in the moment and that is the attitude I have tried to bring into my life as a business person.

There is a saying that success is never final. If a farmer has a great harvest they say, Great, let’s get ready for next year. How does that work for a potter?

Exactly. Well, yeah, it’s really similar.  You have a really good firing and at least for me, I have a good firing, I have a big online sale, all the pots go out the door that I decided to sell and get shipped off, and then already the space gets cleared and it is time to start again. And there is something about that that again is a lesson on attachment, not attached to the failures and the things that break or don’t work but also not too attached to the successes because they sort of limit your growth. So every time the making cycle ends I always feel that when I pull pots out of the kiln and I get really excited about some of them I am also thinking, That’s cool but I really want to do it this way next time.  So the end of the cycle really gets me excited for the beginning of the next one and that is kind of nice, natural progression.

You mentioned failure. Is it true that failure is not fatal?

Definitely not. Definitely not. Yeah, I have a interesting relationship to failure also because I was always an A student and things kind of came easily to me and I think I didn’t have as many failures as I maybe could have in my early life to teach me not to be afraid of them. So I am still working on trying to step out of my comfort zone and fail a little more often because I think that would actually be really good for me and make me a little more fearless as a creative person and maybe as a business woman as well. I also think a failure is only a failure if you think of it that way. A failure is a failure because it didn’t meet your expectations of what it was going to be but unexpected things can happen that maybe if you could look at them the right way could give you new ideas.



You did a hike from Mexico to Canada. What did the hike do to refresh you?

I think that the best way to answer that is think about the quietness of my mind. There is something about having to move my body all day and having only one thing I really had to do, and that was to just walk. So I got to let of a lot of the expectations I had put on myself. And I got to think all the thoughts I could possibly think all those days in a row. Eventually I got calm and there was a quietness in myself that I had not felt before, and I didn’t realize it until afterwards. That quietness let things to quiet enough for me internally that I was able absorb more of what was around me and soak it in. It re-centered me. I was reminded of who I was and what was most important.

I read a while ago that the only thing better than a good harvest is a good neighbor. It sounds like on your hike you had a good “trail family”. How does having others around you make the trip better?

I think it is true not only on my experience on the Pacific Crest trail but also in my experience as a potter. Having people around you to share it with, to talk about it, be curious and enthusiastic, playful, silly, and goofy… There is observing the world and sharing your experience of it with other people, and those are two really different things. The sharing of it make is so much more rich. It also helps you understand your own experience with it.

For a farmer, it’s just dirt. And for a potter, it’s just mud. But when it comes down to it, the farmer and the potter see the same thing… potential. How does that apply to you?

That is beautiful. Both the farmer and the potter develop a relationship with the dirt and the mud. So there is respect and curiosity and joy there and maybe that is where the feeling of potential comes from. It’s like the newness of a new friend kind of thing… that’s how it feels to me. Like a playmate.


The Overstory by Richard Powers


Instagram: @ayla.mullen

Angelia S. Rico

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