Wendy Welch Published

Appalachian Artist Gets Her Mojo Back, Appalachian Woman Gets Her Unicorn Back

A handmade mug is shown with a braided handle. Inside the mug is a small unicorn.
This is not the unicorn that started it all; it’s his replacement.
Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the March 24, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Once upon a time there was a girl named Ashley Nollen, who loved unicorns. In her own words, “I have been a unicorn fanatic since I was a little girl. My favorite movie in the world growing up was The Last Unicorn and I really feel like unicorns, for me, symbolize hope.” 

Growing up in northern Virginia, Nollen went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival every year with her family, but they couldn’t afford to buy things there. So she made an internal vow. 

“I’m going to grow up and become an adult and have adult money and spend it here.” 

Her vow didn’t take long to fulfill. At age 17, Nollen landed her dream job: working in a bookstore. When her first paycheck arrived, she set it aside. Now she had cash, she knew exactly where she would spend it: at the renaissance festival.

Nollen circled the entire event twice before choosing a blue speckled mug with a braided handle. The man who sold her the mug was a jouster named (fittingly enough) Lance. Lance told Nollen to not stir inside the mug with a spoon and that it was dishwasher safe, but not to let it straddle a pin when going through the dishwasher.

Nollen loved the mug. “It had a little unicorn in it that was sitting in it looking up and it had crossed legs and cloven hoofs and such detailed hair in its mane. It was unique.” 

She took good care of it, and the mug accompanied her to college a couple of years later. Her junior year, Nollen acquired a roommate, a nice guy who did dishes. One day he put the unicorn mug in the dishwasher. Over a pin.

“I didn’t know, or maybe I could have saved it,” Nollen recalled. “And when I pulled it out, the whole thing just kind of broke apart into pieces and flew across my kitchen.”

Her roommate promised to replace the mug next year. But when they got back to the festival, the shop was gone. Nollen could remember its location within the event, but not the name. She began asking vendors about “the place that sold mugs.” (If you’ve never been to a renaissance festival or faire, a lot of places sell mugs.)

Nollen, who enjoys role-playing games (RPG), had to laugh as she recalled that day. It became something of a live RPG. 

“This turned into like a real-life quest where each little vendor or shop I went to … you would talk to them and they would each give you, like, a little piece of the story.” 

Since Nollen didn’t know that Lance had only sold her the mug, not made it, she was actually asking the wrong question without being aware of that: did anyone know how she could find Lance? And people kept telling her he had gone north, or south, or been in a joust gone bad and died.

“There were several reports of his demise,” Nollen said.

Meanwhile, the person who had actually made Nollen’s mug was alive and well in Lancaster, Ohio. Her name was (and still is) Anj Campbell. Like Lance, she is not dead. 

Campbell first took up making mugs, as a hobby in Dayton, Ohio, back in 1982.

“I was a quiet and well-behaved suburban housewife,” Campbell said. “And the city of Dayton Parks and Recreation Department had an absolutely wonderful fine art and crafts center with incredibly reasonable pricing. It was the Riverbend Art Center. It was in an old Quonset hut down on the river in downtown Dayton. And they offered pottery.”

She tried several classes, but when she got to pottery, it just clamped a hold of her and never let go. 

“It took over my life,” Campbell said. Campbell fell in love with the sound of the wheel and the feel of the clay.

“When everything sings, and you get the clay centered, and it’s not fighting you, and you’re literally listening to the clay with your hands, you can do it with your eyes shut. And everything just flows together. And it’s a wonderful, fluid, almost meditative tactile experience. And it just makes my heart happy. When I hit that zone, when everything flows. It’s like a prayer. That is the point at which work is prayer. And everything you are and everything you have experienced ends up in that clay somehow, some way.” 

While Campbell was falling in love with the clay, people were falling in love with Campbell’s work. She took third place in the Riverbend Art Show with a mask she made. People began noticing her talent. A local artist approached. Did Campbell want to join him selling mugs on the renaissance faire circuit? Campbell wanted to, but she knew her work would have to stand out in a literal crowded field.

“So I started including drinking companions. Yes, drinking companions, because everybody and his brother will make a mug. But mine come with someone you can talk to who will never ever ask you for money.”

The little unicorn that captured Nollen’s heart was part of a long parade of mythical mug-dwelling creatures.

Campbell began describing creatures she’d fashioned. “So there are dragons, some of whom are grumpy, some of whom are pleasant, some of whom are downright curious as to why you’re drinking their bathwater. There are unicorns there are Pegasus, or Pegasi, if that is the correct Greek plural, mermaids, fairies, fawns, anything that people can think of ends up in a mug. Someone else wanted a pig so she ended up getting a pig with wings. That way, you will always have someone to drink with you and you will never spend the morning alone.”

Five handmade mugs are shown. All feature unicorns inside the mugs.
Assorted drinking companions.

Photo Credit: Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Faire-goers loved the whimsical practicality of Campbell’s work; her mugs flew off the shelves. Campbell’s husband pointed something out to her.

“He said I could make at least as much money making and selling pottery as I was making at a retail job. And he was right.”

Campbell began circuit riding to renaissance faires around the country. Occasionally, she got to put on medieval garb and an Irish accent to banter with customers, but usually she was backstage somewhere working the clay. 

“It was a case of literally hauling the wheel and the kiln around with us so that when I was based somewhere, I would have the opportunity to work,” Campbell said. 

Sales were great — until the 1990s recession hit. As sales slowly dried up, Campbell and her husband divorced, and she made another difficult decision.

“The pottery just wasn’t going to be making enough money to allow me to continue to depend on that as my sole income,” Campbell said. “So given a choice between continuing to live indoors and enjoy the immense pleasure of running water, and heat and light. I stopped pottering full-time and started working again.”

Nollen — the high school student who spent her own money to buy her own unicorn mug — didn’t know it, but she bought it around the last year Campbell sent her wares to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. 

Campbell moved to Lancaster, Ohio — without husband or kiln. And soon pottery became part of her past life. 

She worked in the photo lab at Walmart, worked in the pharmacy at Walmart, worked as an alcohol and substance abuse addictions counselor. Then she was offered her current position of leasing agent, at an apartment complex in Lancaster, Ohio.

“It seemed I never had enough time or energy simultaneously, to go and get the shop set up and make the trip out there to continue to try to work on the pottery,” Campbell said. “So up until a couple of years ago, I wasn’t pottering anymore. I was just working. But then something very strange happened.” 

COVID-19 hit. The renaissance faire and festival community set up a Facebook page so artists could sell their creations online during the lockdowns. That’s how Nollen, now living in Virginia with a husband and two children, figured she could finally replace her beloved unicorn. 

“All of a sudden I had access to vendors that were all across the country,” Nollen said. “I put out the request, I described the mug.” 

Soon the owner of the shop where Campbell had sold her mugs was tagged. He gave Nollen Campbell’s name and told her she was on Facebook. 

“I found two people with that name. One had a picture of a cat and I just figured that had to be her,” Nollen said.

Campbell recalled the Facebook message. “I got contacted out of the blue by an absolutely delightful young lady named Ashley Nollen, who explained to me that she had been trying for more than 10 years to find me.” 

“And she just couldn’t believe that I’d been looking for her for a decade,” Nollen said.

Nollen’s search had made Campbell famous in the online festival and faire community. People who owned one of Campbell’s mugs were proudly posting photos and turning down offers doubling the original purchase price. People who didn’t have one were demanding details on how to place an order. 

Nollen put it well. She said that Campbell “had to go on her own journey and her own quest.”

Campbell sat a few months with the news that someone had been looking for her that hard, that long, wanting what she had made that much. Her kiln was in a faraway outbuilding at a friend’s farm in rural New York, covered with dust and a tarp. She had no idea where her clay mojo was. But she liked Nollen. And she remembered the times the clay sang in her hands.

Campbell and her son made a winter’s journey together. “And I got my stuff from my friend who had been keeping everything stored in her barn,” Campbell said. They hauled the kiln several hundred miles to Lancaster, Ohio.

Campbell fired off a series of unicorn mugs. She also shaped dragons, cats, hedgehogs and myriad other drinking companions for the community clamoring for her work. But Campbell made sure the first unicorns went to the Nollen family.

The package arrived the day before the mail stopped running for Christmas. Campbell had included a few extra surprises. There were nine mugs in the package. 

A children's book is shown on a table. There is a small gray rabbit sitting in a patch of grass. The title reads, "You're My Little Honey Bunny" by Natalie Marshall. On top of the book is a handmade mug. Inside the mug features a bunny.
The bunny mug with its inspiration.

Photo Credit: Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Nollen had told Campbell about her children: her son Jerome’s passion for red, her daughter Cordelia’s favorite book Honey Bunny. Campbell sent a child-sized mug holding a cheerful waving bunny. Plus, a small unicorn mug (Cordelia was three at the time.). There were also two mugs for Jerome, one housing a red dragon, and a red mug housing a green dragon. 

“It was fabulous. It was Christmas before Christmas,” Nollen said. “And in the nature of children everywhere, my son wanted my daughter’s unicorns and she wanted his dragons. Nothing unusual there.”

Nollen paused. “You know, just having her having her create again, it felt amazing to be part of that journey and part of her journey, too.” Then she grinned. “I mean, my baby’s gonna need a mug.”

Oberon, the son who joined Nollen’s family in 2023, will be getting his own mug soon. “We figure on starting him with a unicorn,” Nollen said. Nollen’s husband also suffered dragon envy. Originally, he told Nollen just to get mugs for the children, but when he saw the special personalized creations of the bunny, dragons and unicorns, he felt a little left out. This will be rectified with the next order, Nollen said.

Campbell and her kiln still live in Lancaster. Five days a week she works in an office helping people rent apartments, and on the sixth day, she creates things. Campbell no longer depends on pottery for her living, which means she can experiment with designs.

“I can drag out those notebooks from 40 years ago, when my husband would look at a sketch I’d come up with and say, ‘You can’t do that. Nah. You’ll never sell it for the price it will be worth, and it’ll take up too much of your time.’ Forget that,” Campbell said. “So, yes, I still have all those notebooks from 40 years ago. And yes, now I’m getting to play with those things.” 

“Artists need community,” Nollen said. “They can get too much up in themselves. They need to be appreciated. [Campbell] didn’t realize how much her art could mean to someone else … And I’m just so glad she came back to it.”

Nollen is a creative writer and avid book reviewer. She keeps her new unicorn mug by her side when writing. “It gives me writing mojo … We have to appreciate each other, so we all keep making stuff.”

An adult woman looks down past the camera. In her hands, she holds two handmade mugs that features a unicorn inside.
Ashley Nollen holding two of the mugs Anj Campbell sent.

Photo Credit: Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
An elderly woman with white hair smiles for the camera and is wrapped in a knitted, white shawl.
Potter Anj Campbell modeling an All Souls shawl.

Photo Courtesy of Anj Campbell


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.