Ceramicist Alex Draper’s Byron Bay Home Meets Studio Is a Bohemian Dream
Welcome to The Makers. Each week, we’re celebrating innovators, artisans and crafters of all types, taking you on a private tour of their creative spaces. For this instalment, we tour ceramicist Alex Draper's carefree home meets studio in Byron Bay.
Alex is the brainchild behind MUDDY which offers community-based ceramic workshops in Byron Bay. The idea was born out of a desire to connect people with their inner-child and to fully immerse them in the joy and relief that creating provides. "We do a lot of commissions now and we also create learning environments for people at any level to experience what interaction with clay can do for your hands, head, and heart,” Alex shares with Bed Threads Journal.
Alex recently held her first group exhibition ‘Potted’ in December which consisted of a collective of potters from around the globe all showcasing their version of strange and wonderful pots. "I’m probably the proudest I’ve been in my muddy career of these forms," she says.
Her relaxed home boasts a boho aesthetic that's perfectly fit for its Byron Bay location and its main occupant. All throughout the abode, devil's ivy hangs from the ceiling and rattan furniture reigns supreme. The studio where she creates and hosts workshops also resides within this home and is unsurprisingly filled with alluring ceramic objects.
And while Alex wasn't particularly taken by the property upon first glance, it was the location and sunroom that drew her in. "It didn’t look too tasty on realestate.com to be honest but the location and sunroom reeled me in for a peek," she says. This dreamy space is bathed in natural light and green hues and has been converted into the perfect bedroom nook to unwind. These tones juxtapose with the cosy main bedroom where warm Pink Clay and Terracotta hues prevail.
We spoke with Alex about how she finds relief in her creative work, how her business boomed during lockdown, and the way she's styled her carefree Byron Bay abode.
Hi Alex! This series is called The Makers. What is it that you make?
Under the guise of MUDDY Clay Play and MUDsmith, I am a teacher and a manipulator of the mud.
I make anything and everything from houses for your blooms and branches to a keeper for your morning brew. Specialising in the strange, shaper of the unnecessary. I like to incorporate movement into shape, and objects as art rather than just a functional piece. I’m very big on being very intentional with what you surround yourself with. Invest in things that make you feel something and that you can keep forever.
We do a lot of commissions now, so incept a business and chameleon our way through the mud to translate forms that speak their language. It’s the most fun.
We also create learning environments for people at any level to experience what interaction with clay can do for your hands, head and heart.
How does the act of “making” relate to your personality and who you are?
Like most kids my 9-5 was consumed by play. I would live most of my days fully immersed in a fantasy land of my own creation. They’re to date my most potent memories of concentrated joy. The visceral kind where you’re the ice cube melting into liquid euphoria. I was born in Whyalla, South Australia. An iron mining town comprised of mostly red dirt and dry heat. I never needed too much entertainment and my parents thought it important I work it out for myself.
Mum and Dad were both teachers when I was a squirt. They pulled my sister and I out of school for little bursts of time to travel and they would teach us on the road. We’d learn some of the language so we could communicate for ourselves and school up on the culture we were visiting. No matter where we went there was a common theme amongst children that remained the same across the seas; play. Everyone’s native tongue. Spoken language would dissolve and there would be an entrance into another world where everyone was fluent.
My first interaction with clay was in the shed of my best friend's house post primary school one arvo. Stelleen (my friends mum) was a potter and she introduced us to the basics. No real rules just free form hand building. I remember time completely dissolving and I would look forward to it when school was getting tedious.
As I progressed into later schooling and adulthood, play existed less and less. I slowly departed from a present state into preoccupation with the past and the future and my internal climate changed. These are the years I felt most disconnected with myself, my body and other people. I believed that this foreign state robbing me of myself had consumed the best parts of me permanently.
The thing that remains as a portal into presence both now and then was entering into some form of creative play. Often just by myself. It would divert my attention for long enough that my body had a chance to catch up. And although I don’t suffer like I used to, my breathing still lengthens, time disappears, and the landscape of my thoughts alter.
So for me, ‘making’ isn’t making at all. Sure, that’s the result at the end. But it’s the process that is the most nourishing to my bones. And a lost language that I’ve had to actively claw my way back to during adulthood.
Tell us about your career journey to date. Did you always know you wanted to pursue this line of work?
My early projections of my future did not look like this at all. I was very interested in human behaviour and the brain after my health experiences as a youngster. I went to uni fresh out of school and set my sights on working in a more traditional role. I found sitting still and absorbing the information at uni quite tricky and tedious. I loved people and could spin a yarn and connect relatively easily.
I kept my creative self and my professional self seperate for many years. I was pretty married to executing a more traditional career since I’d done the hard yards at uni and went on to do so during early adulthood. I once again found my creative ventures diminishing whilst the exhaustion of my 9-5 took hold. There were parts of connecting with people and helping that I absolutely loved. I hadn’t worked out for many years that I could colour outside the lines and depart entirely from my studies and professional life. Moving into a wholly creative realm has been a dream come true.
Talk us through your creative process. Where do you start?
I will have bursts of creativity at any hour so I have to have my notebook and felt tip on hand to draw a concept out. The shape almost always distorts during the making process and takes on its own personality. I keep it pretty flexible so I can let new things unfold. I try my darnedest to accomodate for the disappointments because there are many when working with mud!
With workshops winding down during lockdowns and border restrictions its actually freed up a whole lot of headspace for new concepts and testing different clay bodies.
Since clay is now my 9-5 I have to be careful that I don’t trade in my joy for making with hardline production. I’ve had to learn the word ‘no’. A day a week of ‘free play’ has been my secret ingredient. Where I don’t have anything on but a child like curiosity for shape and form. This is when I come up with the juiciest things.
What’s been the single most crucial tool or strategy you’ve used to further your business?
Social enterprise. I opened MUDDY at a very interesting time. We’d only done one face-to-face workshop before COVID hit and I’d planned on shutting it down. I kept costs pretty low originally and had just converted the carport at the back of my house in Byron into the OG mud den. I was still working full time at this stage so didn’t need to rely on it.
The driver for MUDDY was a back door into meditation. A passion project for connection with yourself and the person sitting next to you. Clay doesn’t discriminate so it was always going to pull a diverse crowd which is exactly what I wanted. It didn’t feel right to me to remove a source of connection during a time where people were becoming increasingly isolated. So I needed to get crafty on how to provide it to people remotely.
Within a few days I’d created clay kits with all the essentials for people to get muddy from the comfort of their kitchen table. I’d priced them to be extremely affordable and also offered free or borrowed tools locally to those that had hit a snag with employment. I’d decided to offer free online live tutorials via social media to anyone that wanted them in replacement of our face-to-face MUD Friday’s (The isoclaytion edit).
Punters didn’t need to purchase a muddy kit to get involved, I taught people how to swap out their clay tools for items in their kitchen drawer if need be. I didn’t expect many people to get on board as the advertising was mainly comprised of word of mouth and a few social media posts. Much to my surprise I had over 100 people tuning into the first live session and from there it became borderline unmanageable!
I was up until 1am many nights making and packing kits to send off for the next isoclaytion instalment. It was so heartwarming interacting with people in real time while they were learning the language of their hands. Over the months we made everything from boob mugs to citrus squeezers and everything in between. It’s the single most pivotal component for MUDDY.
It wasn’t about money it was about the wellness of humans and I think people felt that. Our reach went from a few hundred to ten thousand which was equally exciting as it was completely overwhelming.
What’s been the most challenging lesson learnt so far in your business?
That no matter how much energy you expend you can’t please everyone.
What’s been the best thing that’s happened to you since you started your business?
Hiring people that have become my family. I get to spend every day marinating in the company of some of my favourite humans. I think the notion that you are the sum of your five closest friends couldn’t be more accurate. I feel like I’ve won the emotional lottery.
Do you have a single piece of advice you’d give to your younger self or someone looking to pursue a similar line of work?
I have more than one piece of advice to my younger self. There’s never a ‘good time’. Decipher the difference between planning and stalling. Money can’t be the singular motivator, passion will nourish you in a way that nothing else can.
Make mistakes, take a look at the mistakes, make another mistake (and so on), discover through play, learn to shape shift without abandoning your values. When something ends it allows for the roots of something more aligned to develop, you’re going to be okay (really though).
Now, the home stuff. How long have you lived in your home?
Two years. I was in Bangalow beforehand in a groovy little Queenslander off Rifle Range Road.
How did you initially know this was the space for you?
It didn’t look too tasty on realestate.com to be honest but the location and sunroom reeled me in for a peek. I wasn’t disappointed, not because it was really nice but because it was incredibly dirty and had yellow walls with paint chipping. I knew that the likelihood of me getting it with a dog was off the richter.
I also have an affinity for seeing things that aren’t yet there (thanks childhood) so could envision what could be done aesthetically. My prerequisites are white walls, floorboards, and some natural light. That’s a blank canvas as far as I’m concerned. It reminds me of a 50’s beach shack and it made me feel calm.
Recreate Alex's look with Olive Stripe and Sage in our Build Your Own Bedding Bundle.
Did you do any renovations or make any big changes after moving in?
My friend Anrielle and I gave the space an industrial clean and stripped and painted the walls from yellow (not the trendy shade) to crispy white. We had a competition on who could paint a wall faster while another friend delivered us tacos.
A replacement of the plastic ‘original’ toilet seat to a wooden Bunnings number, and a rain shower head does absolute wonders for a dated bathroom. Some shelves in the kitchen transformed that space but this was your classic 'how to transform your digs on a shoestring budget' scenario.
What was the thought process behind the way you’ve styled the interior?
By assigning a backstory and personality to each corner, an ode to my kid self. A decorating reincarnation of a moment, a person, a feeling, a place. That's how I add ‘feeling’ to a space. It tells you a story that hot wires you to melting ice cream in the heat of summer, scraped knees and salty tears, a hug that feels like home.
What are your favourite pieces in the home?
The sideboard in the kitchen matches the house's personality to a T. Years ago my dad texted me a photo on his way home from work with the caption ‘thought you’d like this’ and the location. It was an incredibly old sideboard drenched in rain that had been discarded on the side of the road. The top was completely unusable having soaked in the elements and the bone shade paint was rejecting the hardwood beneath it.
I dragged it into my boot single handedly which would have been quite the spectacle. For a week post road-pluck it was in intensive care. I dried it, ripped the lid off and gave it a light sand. I ended up getting some recycled timber to replace the surface and inset hand painted tiles from Central Mexico. They’re aggressively yellow.
It's a piece brought back from the dead and living its best life. It reminds me of humans; Layered, complicated, a juxtaposition of old and new, life and death, carrying a thousand stories meaning different things to a thousand people.
Recreate Alex's look with Pink Clay and Terracotta in our Build Your Own Bedding Bundle.
Do you have any special décor pieces you’re looking to add?
A close friend and I are looking to do a little furniture collaboration actually. I am desperate for a table that doesn’t exist for the outdoor space. The collaboration part is I will be making and painting ceramic tiles for the table top for a colour pop. Dana owns Workshop Kama and operates from a workshop in the hinterland. He’s responsible for the gorgeous grainy benches in the MUDDY den.
Which is your favourite room in the house?
It would have to be the sunroom. It’s the room that was most probably designed to be a sunny workspace but I have forced it into bedroom territory. It only fits a bed and a chair beneath the panoramic windows and there’s nothing better than sleeping amongst the trees. It has made me very intentional with what I place in that room.
There is a photography of the South Australian sand dunes gifted to me by a talented photographer, a ceramic sculpture crafted by my oldest friend, a shell mobile made for me by another friend's father with shells he collected on his visit to Australia, two hanging plants, a vintage mirror, and a cloud like velvet reading chair kissed by the morning sun.
What are your top tips for a well-styled bedroom, and home generally?
I’m a bit of a maximalist. So if you’re anything like me then it’s very important that everything has a place and there is NO CLUTTER! Clutter is to a room what too much salt is to a dish. So if you have an affinity for ‘things’ then it has to be intentional. The colours, textures, furniture eras, mixtures of old and new. You can create the feel of a full space by playing around with colour and texture rather than having seventy cushions.
Do you have any projects coming up you want to talk about?
We’ve got some community initiatives afoot which really floats my boat. ‘Clay it forward’ is a project where we ask the community to nominate a human they believe would benefit from our CLAYGROUP short courses. The catch is, they can’t just put their name in, they need to write them a love note with the specifics of what they mean to them.
The nominations go into a pool and one is drawn every month. Someone is awarded the four week course as a little antidote to the disconnect. They’ll learn the skills to continue at home if they so please. Another branch of Clay it Forward is working to provide comp clay play to the senior community.
What’s beautiful about investing in a class or course with MUDDY, a portion of your coin is going towards the above. So your contribution runs deep into the roots of what makes us a community.
For those partial to a fun shape, ‘MUDsmith’ is our sister to MUDDY, responsible for all of our exhibition and commission pieces. You can get a load of the visuals @MUD.smith on the gram.