Alysia Mazzella has felt the impulse to create and tell stories for as long as she can remember. From her years working as a documentary videographer to her involvement in publishing an online magazine or forays into concocting herbal tinctures and salves — she has tried a lot! But, when Alysia started making beeswax candles, she felt supported in a way that she hadn’t experienced before.
Now, nearly four years later, Alysia has found her stride running her small business and is taking steps to embody her craft and bring light to others in the future. Sustainability, community, and regeneration are words that direct her practice and life mission, and we cannot wait to see her accomplish everything she sets out to do!
Kinship + Craft had the opportunity to speak with Alysia over Zoom to bring you this interview. It has been edited in collaboration with her for length and clarity purposes.
Embodying the craft of candle-making
K+C — Hi Alysia! Firstly, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me. I’ve been looking forward to it. Could you start by telling us how you would describe yourself and what you do?
Number one I’m a beeswax candle maker. I focus on traditional candles, which means candles for function. I look back to candles that have been around for a long time, which burn properly and provide long-burning light. The traditional aspect is also what led me to study the craft of candle-making and get really passionate about candle history, beeswax, fire, the honeybee, and our relationship, as humans, with these elements.
I recently launched a Patreon as a place for what I call the Study of Beeswax on honeybee facts, candle history, candle keeping, and of course candle-making.
Overall, my goal with the whole thing is really to become a master candle maker in some way — even though that word master is really gross, but you know, traditionally how it’s used.
K+C — Of course, you mean the definition of a master being a craftsperson who has a high level of knowledge and experience with the craft.
Yeah, yeah. I genuinely mean that — as in studying and becoming that. Someone once commented on Instagram, saying, “You are a candle,” and it surprised me. I had never even thought of that — that you become your craft in certain ways after a while. But it’s so true. Any craft is really symbolic when you’re working with your hands, so I just want to become a candle, truly. (laughs)
K+C — I really like that idea. It hit me a little bit emotionally. Firstly, someone saying that you are a candle is such a sweet compliment, but the idea of becoming your craft is also a lovely idea. It blends the human, work, and impact in a beautiful way.
One note on that because you just hit something for me, too. I’m reading this book by Carl Jung and he’s talking about how we live in a rational society — like if one plus one doesn’t equal two, it doesn’t make sense. Yet, in indigenous cultures, everything is very symbolic. For example, if a bird comes to your window after someone dies you might think, “Oh was that my Grandpa?” So, those types of things, you know what I mean? I think the idea of symbolism goes into becoming and understanding your craft.
K+C — Yes. It also makes a lot of sense for the ritual side of your work, in that you’re creating a moment for light to happen. But those are also aspects that don’t need that mathematical rationality, so to say. Maybe the process of actually making does, but there can be a spiritual side, too.
Building a life of purpuse on her own farm
K+C — You and your partner (collage artist Fon Borrello) recently moved to an old farmhouse you’ve been restoring. How has it been adjusting to the new home and surrounding land?
Adjusting has been okay. We live in a place that’s very rural. It’s not popular like downstate; it feels like the middle of nowhere, really. I grew up in Newburgh (New York), a small city that is a very diverse, active, populated place. We chose our new home because of the space. I’m thinking about what’s possible for the greater vision of life, and this place made sense for us.
The vision is to create a community around the land and specifically the mission is to increase the number of black, indigenous, and people of color beekeepers, especially in New York State because it’s a white, straight male-dominated world. Everyone I get beeswax from is a white, straight male. These people are good people, but I don’t see myself. I don’t see my brother. I don’t see my father. I don’t see people I grew up with. It seems like a very segregated thing.
I think it’s because beekeeping is passed down, and for whatever reason, in upstate New York, it hasn’t been held onto by people of color. Beekeeping is a very expensive practice, too. So if you don’t have a mentor, the resources, or the supplies being passed down — beekeeping can lack access. So, with Backland — that’s the name of our farm — we want to host lessons where people come and learn about bees or even just be in the presence [of them]. I want to provide the necessary resources for Black people and people of color who are interested in beekeeping.
K+C — Did you and Fon come up with the name Backland? Also, is it supposed to hark back to the days when there were more black or indigenous beekeepers in that area, or a time when people were more connected to nature in general?
Yeah, I found the name after looking up different words for the boondocks. I think of it in multiple ways. So, one, Backland as in “the boonies” — like the backwoods [or remote countryside]. Then, yes, also as in going back to land, like returning. I think it carries both of those meanings for me.
Our town also has an indigenous name. It translates to “the meeting place.” The language of the original people lives on, which I think is really sacred and important. So, when I found out it was called the meeting place, that was also another aspect of our work here. A meeting place for someone of color to their ancestors. A meeting place for yourself and the natural world. I am also indigenous, it’s a different tribe, but still, I am returning to that — those lessons and that beauty and joy living with the land.
People wanted to support my candle-making in a way that didn’t happen with the other things I’d made. I very quickly realized that there’s something here. I can create a life.
Past experiences connecting with the present
K+C — Backland seems to be an example of that convergence of the present, the past, and the future that happens in your work. There are so many other examples, from how the material should be returned in the future after people have burned the candles, or what the impact is on the environment overall, and even how we can connect with ourselves or heal from our pasts. It really has reminded me of how many experiences are teaching moments that lead us to where we should be, in a way. What felt so special to me is that you worked on documentaries and an online magazine in the past. I thought, oh, this makes so much sense! Even though it might seem far away from candle-making, those two experiences complement it, as well. So, I wanted to ask what your take is. Which past experiences do you think have led you specifically to where you are with your work and life right now?
Yeah, wow, I think it all totally makes sense. How it’s unraveled to now. [In my documentary and online magazine work,] I was telling other people’s stories, but I think it helped me see myself a little more objectively. When I was telling stories, [the questions were,] “Why do you want to live? Why do you want to be here? What are you doing?” [These were] always at the core of why I talked to people, and eventually I asked myself that.
I also worked for a non-profit called The Restorative Center and we did Restorative Justice and Community Circles. That helped me develop my voice. We would sit in a circle and share a talking piece, and as a circle keeper, we had prompts to ask [the circle]. If you had the talking piece you could talk, and every time the talking piece came to me I would start crying. Just knowing that I had an opportunity to really share my opinion and my voice. It was one of the first times in my life that I could be heard and I felt the weight of that. It honestly helped me speak, learn how to speak, and [figure out] what I wanted to say.
K+C — Mhmm.
So, yes, I think it’s all developed me in intricate ways that have led to a special place with candle-making. My work today also comes from the fact that I was burning candles a lot and had asked myself how to make them. I found a Youtube video on dipping and I had beeswax on hand.
Then, also behind the scenes, it was a time — so my partner and I knew we wanted to save money to get land. If we were going to get anywhere, we needed to find another way to live. So, we moved back in with my mother. That’s something I have a lot of shame about announcing, especially in American culture.
K+C — I understand what you mean. Although, I also find that aspect of mainstream American culture bizarre — considering there are so many other cultures around the world that value multi-generational homes.
It’s true. It was such a special moment in life, really, to have everybody under one roof, especially as an adult. Early on I found myself turning into a child so much, like snapping at my mother. We lived communally for four years, but at the end of those four years, our relationship had come such a long way. It was me being an adult in a relationship with my family and not being a child. It ended up being healing.
And, because we lived with the family, my partner and I built a shed in the backyard, in this wooded area, where we went to be alone. That’s where I found sacred alone time. It’s where I started burning candles for ritual, and where I got curious and started making them.
K+C — That reminds me of what you’ve said about re-centering yourself, too. There’s so much power in communal spaces, but, at the same time, you’ve got to recharge.
Yeah. When I started dipping [candles], I had this very clear inner thought: if I have to do one thing for the rest of my life, I’m cool with candles being it. I’ve tried making pillows; I made necklaces; I was making [herbal] tinctures and salves. I’ve made many things [in my life], but there’s something about the candles that felt accepted into the world. People wanted to support my candle-making in a way that didn’t happen with other things I’d made. I very quickly realized that there’s something here. I can create a life. It was very natural how I arrived. It wasn’t like I want to make a lot of money on this, or I want to make this my livelihood. Something just clicked and a livelihood became possible.
The personal calling behind Alysia’s beeswax candles
K+C — What did you imagine candle-making would become when you started?
It was just for me. It was for my own time, being alone in the [shed]. It was when I was really aligning with the moon and the lunar cycles, and I was looking for something outside of myself. I was meeting up with friends at every quarter moon to plan ceremonies and gather. It was this very profound, nurturing relationship we created. Shortly after that, I found candle-making. I really liked taper [candles], and I started collecting brass candlesticks. So yeah, it was just truly for myself and my own personal practice. I think that’s also where the tradition came in because I knew I wanted these candles to burn for a certain amount of hours.
When I made a six-hour taper and I knew it was going to burn for that amount of time, it helped me with my altars, too, because I knew it would last for the quarter if I sat down for an hour every so often. It was [about] function for me. I was sitting down with candlelight to greet those moments as sacred alone time.
K+C — That makes a lot of sense. Also, I have to say that I always enjoy hearing when people come to that, “Why didn’t I think of this earlier?” moment. It’s so special, even if they’re all different.
Yeah. I think everything’s a lesson, right? I think we’re alive to learn. And, if everything’s a lesson, you really can’t make a wrong decision. No matter where you go, no matter where you end up, it’s all of learning what you’ve come here to do. In the end, it kind of all circles. It’s not a [straight] line.
K+C — True, but there are also ways culture impacts that, too, right? Whether you’re talking about living with your family and feel shame about that, or something you do doesn’t go as planned and you feel the so-called failure of that.
Yeah. I think that’s what being present helps with. I’m not saying that I’m a super present person, but I do know the importance of being here now and what that does. [Those feelings of] shame are totally fraudulent. It shouldn’t be that way. There should be pride and joy. Moving in with my family was a sacrifice and a privilege. We sacrificed our independence. There was this element of letting go, and it was hard. But, I also know that if I hadn’t had the privilege to move into my mom’s [house], I wouldn’t have been able to get this farm.
K+C — Of course! And, without that move, you possibly wouldn’t have discovered candle-making either.
No, I wouldn’t have.
The challenges of being a solo-maker building a business
K+C — So, you’ve now reached the point where you have a nice rhythm, which is wonderful. But, could you tell us what challenges you experienced along the way as a solo-maker, or with building up the business?
Turning a practice into a business — I mean, I [started] it for myself, and then I shared it from there. So, turning that into a business can sometimes feel like you’re taking the fun out of it. [For example,] it was very meditative, right? Slowly dipping [candles]. Then, I expanded my collection and now offer wholesale, and it’s not all fun. Like when I have to make 100 candles for someone — that’s work. However, it’s also that balance thing.
The challenge, and opportunity, and lesson that comes with my business is very sacred to me — [the question of] how I can serve the world in a special way. When I lose track of the specialness of my work, I try to just have fun for myself. I will make a candle with flowers on it. It’s literally like playing dress-up, [even if they’re not the most functional candles], you know?
But something that’s very serious, is just how to make the business sustainable. I try to be very honest about how much things cost as an independent maker. Understanding percentages and how, when you sell a candle, you have to include the light bill [and other overhead costs]. That’s crazy for most people.
However, everything that serves my business needs to be paid for, otherwise, it’s coming out of my own pocket, which means it’s unsustainable. So that’s a challenge — asking for money, feeling worthy of that money, and understanding that it’s only possible if you do it that way. Otherwise, you’ll run yourself into the ground, or you’ll just be making ends meet forever. It’s not about being greedy or anything. It’s about being really realistic about what something costs. It was a huge challenge in the beginning.
K+C — Right.
Another [lesson that happened] last year was the first time that I sold out of all of my candles and I had no [more] beeswax. I had no means of getting beeswax either because beeswax is seasonal and it wasn’t the right time in the season. I realized I couldn’t just keep buying beeswax endlessly. Business is supply and demand, right? But at the same time, sourcing an endless amount of beeswax is unsustainable. I make these candles by hand, one by one, and there’s a capacity to what I can provide. I realized [during this time] to relax, celebrate growth, and not feel like I was missing out on more, more, more.
K+C — Yeah.
You can order really cheap beeswax online, but it’s not pure beeswax. It’s a blend of cheaper wax. There are a lot of beeswax candle companies that are commercial. They employ a lot of people and they make a lot of candles, [but] I think you can really see that its quantity over quality with those beeswax candles. And there’s a big difference between sourcing fresh local beeswax and making candles as one person. That was something that I had to ask myself. How far am I willing to go? You know, what is important to me here, or what am I trying to do? I was being asked about my relationship in offering candles and my boundaries as a maker.
K+C — Exactly, it’s like the cycles you touched on earlier: that you learn and adjust, then learn and adjust again. I suppose for you, too, it’s about knowing the natural cycles of your materials and how to best prepare, but you can’t know until you go through it.
I also think that because my business is so young, it was just the first time I experienced that. This year I feel much more prepared to limit the stock in a way that’s sustainable for me and sustainable for the beeswax, and sustainable for the world, honestly. But, yes, I think my business is young. It’s my fourth year, so I’m [still] learning.
K+C — Absolutely, and that’s very much okay. The learning will never stop.
K+C — What other resources have you found helpful in this process of building and learning from your business?
I think number one is nature. Being alone in nature. Before I was retreating to the [woods and my shed], I [was in a place in my life] that started feeling very empty. I had a community and friends, but it didn’t feel nurturing. So, when I [started going to] the woods, I realized that nature is always there for me. It’s not about this relationship of exchanging words, necessarily, but it is about this reciprocal relationship of showing up and being present.[In the beginning,] there were so many things that I kept learning day-to-day, just being alone in the woods. I think that’s also [when] I started having this feeling that we have elders within us, and nature reflects that. There’s just this feeling of clarity. Truly, just being alone in the woods was the number one resource that helped me get where I was going. I remember [feeling] like this is the friend I’ve been looking for. This is someone who’s truly there.
Lessons in how to lift up a community
K+C —I’d like to ask about your thoughts on community now. You have created programs, such as the Beeswax Exchange and the Sliding Scale, which are connected to sustainability, affordability, and supporting community. Could you tell us a little bit more about those two ideas?
Well, [the sliding scale idea] comes from my background in Restorative Justice, where we sat in a circle and told stories. I can’t donate every candle I make — like who’s paying for this? — but I do want my work to be accessible.
I know a couple of herbalists who offer sliding scales and I was inspired by them. But, then for me, I just thought, well, anyone can just fill this out. Anyone could just go, “I want forty percent off.” So I thought of asking for a story to create a point of relationship and effort. You know? Tell me your story.
Sliding scale is how can I get candles to people who need them and people who want them. It’s also about dispensable income and enjoying your life, but those two things shouldn’t be a gateway to the other.
K+C — Ideally, yes. How has it been going?
I don’t feel like anyone has taken advantage of that program. The story element just adds [to it]. I’ve never declined a sliding scale person either because the storytelling encourages the truth and it becomes vulnerable. Sharing something for free is vulnerable [for me, too,] because this is my livelihood. But, at the same time, as long as [the candles get to where] they’re needed, that’s awesome. That’s what the end goal is.
K+C — Okay, and how did the Beeswax Exchange develop?
With the Beeswax Exchange —when burning a candle there’s often leftover wax and people would ask me what to do with it. I would tell them to save it and melt it down to make more candles. Some people would just send it to me. Which made me think, okay yeah, let’s do this!
We’ve recycled over 100 pounds to date! Isn’t that so crazy? The program was created out of a natural conversation I was having with the world. And still, I can’t believe how [much beeswax people have sent]. And it’s constantly growing.
K+C — I know! I’ve seen the huge containers of it on your Instagram. It’s amazing!
I realized that nature is always there for me. It’s not about this relationship of exchanging words, necessarily, but it is about this reciprocal relationship of showing up and being present.
K+C — By the way, how do you get the wicks out after you’ve melted it down? Do they fall to the bottom or float to the top?
Either. I’ll filter them out. I have my little mesh thing, and I’ll pour [the melted wax] through a filter it. It’s definitely subpar beeswax, but all of this would have gone to waste. Also, just to acknowledge — look at the difference [in color]. I don’t know if you can actually tell, but this one has been sitting out. This is very old beeswax.
K+C — Yeah. It’s a lighter yellow than the beeswax you use to make your candles.
Yeah, it shows itself. Traditionally, beeswax candle makers would leave taper candles out in the sun on purpose, for some reason, and sun bleach [them]. I don’t understand why that would be ideal because once beeswax is sun-bleached, [the wax] also loses its scent.
What I do with the Beeswax Exchange is I send candles in return for beeswax scraps I receive. I use recycled wax to send candles in return. This way it continues. I don’t sell used wax in any new candles for my business, but I did have a giveaway where I gave away 40 pounds.
K+C —Right, I also remember that.
I was like, this is not something I’m going to sell. I’m not going to profit off of it. That’s the thing with the exchange. There is an exchange rate. You send me a specific amount of ounces, I’ll send you a specific amount of candles and you pay a small price for me to ship it back. I think that’s another element. It doesn’t always need to be for my benefit, you know? As long as it’s sustainable — like sustainable, sustainable.
K+C — Well, we’re coming to a close now, so I would like to ask one last question. Another point in your practice that I wanted to touch on is your collaborations with others. From your partner, collage artist Fon Borrello, to illustrator and ceramics maker Stefanie Bessman and storyteller Leslieann Elle Santiago. Could you tell us how these collaborations took shape?
Yeah, I think that goes back to community. A couple of years back, my good friend Loni was working on a music project, she said, “I’m realizing that I need to use my resources. I have a lot of resources and I don’t use them.” And, what she really meant was her phone book. So, that really clicked something for me that changed my perspective on building [my business]. I started looking around and in front of me.
This was at a time when I was making my Foldfold Oracle deck, and I thought I was going to illustrate it. I am not an illustrator, but I just thought I would figure it out. Then, with Loni’s advice, I realized my partner’s a collage artist and he could make the art. It was so dumb that it hadn’t occurred to me. But this is what I think we have to do. We [have to] think about [our] communities. We all have our own roles, but together we get the job done.
So, [for instance], Stefanie Bessman did the illustration for my new packaging and she is someone I knew as a child. We are fake cousins. I have her ceramic work around my house and I love her illustrations so much. I told her what symbols I was leaning towards and she sketched them out. Her work blows my mind. Stefanie is so talented. I would much rather get inspired by someone else [and support their work, too,] than it just constantly be like me, me, me, me.
K+C — Yeah, absolutely.
I want to support living artists. It’s not just for fun. That’s another thing — even when I source my beeswax, I’d much rather pay an independent guy who does this by himself. This one beekeeper I drive to pick up wax and he’s so grateful and tells me how much it’s helping his family. You know? That’s local economy. I don’t want to just go online and not know who I’m giving my money to. I want to know.
I think that’s why someone said my candles feel alive. That’s the kind of relationship and community I want to be a part of. The ones that feel alive. It means you’re exchanging with the people around you. So Stefanie was someone who has a lot of talent and wants to use it, so I wanted to collaborate in any way. It was organic. Most of my collaborations [are like that].[For the collaboration with Leslieann,] she is a forever friend and a beautiful poet. I wrote down some lines from her poetry in my phone. I found them years later and that’s when I created my Founding Mothers candle. The actual idea to make a printed candle came from my friend Markus Hartel of Raghaus Studios.
It’s not only about [making a] living, it’s about having a passion and wanting to do something with it. If we could keep channeling each other, and supporting each other, eventually we will all find that gift that gives us purpose, you know?
K+C — Yes! It’s nice to see so many little touch points from your past in your present now, too. Well it’s so been so wonderful speaking with you. I really appreciate your time. It has been incredibly touching in so many ways, so thank you for that.
Thank you. I was just thinking — sustainable, sustainable, community, community, community — like all these words. I think regenerative — just to throw it out there — is another word that kind of puts those two together. Things that can keep going!