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Shelley Panton is an artisan
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Shelley Panton is an artisan
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"Everyone thought I was mad to do this, but I thought, well, I'd be mad not to!"
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1 January 2013

Shelley Panton is an artisan

Interview by Livia Albeck-Ripka
Photography by Lauren Bamford

Livia Albeck-Ripka on Shelley Panton

At the height of the recession, Shelley Panton was near broke and unemployed. So she rented a shopfront on a quiet residential street, moved in with her pottery wheel and a head full of ideas.

Some called her crazy, but Shelley was in her element. Before long, she had stacks of crockery in the window, with a sign that read, ‘Hi, I’m Shelley and I’m building a business’. Hell-bent on success, she had no time to fear failure. She’d found the courage to do what she loved. It was all that mattered.

Growing up in Queensland with an Italian mum and a Dad who bore the scars of the Vietnam War, Shelley was the outsider; the girl who couldn’t wait to grow up, who immersed herself in novels, dreaming of travel and change. At first a window designer, then a painter and finally a business owner, she is anchored by positivity — the unwavering belief that somehow, things will turn out okay. The howswhats and wheres don’t concern her too much. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

When I visit Shelley’s place in Melbourne’s south, I’m greeted by her black Labrador Jessie and a killer espresso in a hand-thrown tumbler. Out the back, she shows me her garden, bedroom and tiny kitchen. Her home is humble and well-loved. It is where she works, pots, thinks, lives and loves. It is where we sit down to talk about hope and struggle and how in the end, it’s not so hard to live a life filled with passion and purpose.

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

LIVIA ALBECK-RIPKA: Tell me about your childhood.

SHELLEY PANTON: I grew up in Queensland. Mum’s Italian, Dad’s Australian. I had a pretty free-spirited, lovely childhood in Queensland, but I hit my teens and felt very frustrated. I could never put a name on what I wanted to do when I grew up. All I knew is that I wanted to be creative, travel the world and have a family. They were three things I knew.

I’ve got very strong memories of my Mum’s Mum, Nana, growing her own produce and having chickens out the back. I was the youngest grandchild, so I’d often get left at home with Nana. I’d stand on her little stool, eyes above the counter, watching her cook. When I left school, I applied for several things and got into fashion design. I did that for a year and I didn’t really see myself becoming a fashion designer, but I loved sewing and making clothes.

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #34 of Dumbo Feather

What was it about fashion that you didn’t like? Was it the culture?

I didn’t really see myself designing frocks for massive stores. I thought, I would like to be a couture artist, but at that age, I just couldn’t fathom how. At the time I was working at Country Road. I begged the manager to give me a job in the window dressing team. She’d say, ‘Oh that’s very sweet.’ I was young and quite naive, but very keen.

One day she had several staff members leave. She rang and said, ‘That job you’ve been asking me about? If you want it, I’ve got a position available.’ I jumped at the chance. I quit my course and moved to Brisbane. I was just so hungry to get out there and travel the world and experience. I thought, I could work full-time in this role and learn so much hands-on. I worked better that way. Whereas if I was at uni for three years… I just didn’t enjoy the classroom. I didn’t enjoy being stuck in one room. I wanted to get out.

Then, I hit a point where I felt like there was more out there for me, so I went to see a friend in New Zealand. I fell in love with Auckland. It’s a very small country, but it’s got such a beautiful culture. I moved there for three years. I got into working for fine dining restaurants, and painting. I was an artist. As a kid, I was always painting, sewing, cooking… But then hit twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three and thought, Now I need to be off to Europe. I wanted to find out where my grandparents had come from, so I saved up all of my money from my painting commissions and got a backpack, and went off to Italy for a year.

On your own?

Yep, on my own. I knew very basic Italian.

I had no visa, but I just took off with all the determination in the world to throw myself in the deep end.

I was about to turn twenty-four at the time. I spent a really incredible year there. Actually, it was probably the hardest year, but it was the year I found myself as an adult. I got to a point where I was a little bit tired of the backpack and being broke. I’d been hand to mouth, and I thought I wanted the comfort of home. I wanted to get a job, speak the language and just see my family and friends. I came to Melbourne then. It was early 2002. People would say, ‘Why did you come to Melbourne?’ you know, ‘You’re from Queensland.’

I’ve always loved Melbourne. It’s the creative hub of Australia. It’s also the European hub. Bit by bit, I created a life here. I worked in restaurants, did a bit of painting, a little bit of freelance work, but I just couldn’t quite find my groove. Then one day I ran into Amanda Henderson, the former creative director of Country Road. Again, I begged her for a job. And she gave me one. I ended up assisting her for a few years. And that’s what I was doing before the store.

Then the recession hit. I’d saved up a small deposit, which I was going to put on a flat. But I had no work. The first thing to go in that industry is the stylist. I was sort of at that point where I was like, Back to square one again. In your twenties, you know, you don’t mind, because you just use your downtime to go out and have a coffee with your mates, hang out, or read a book. But I hit that age where I was turning thirty, and I wanted stability.

I had two friends who’d asked if I would house-sit for six weeks each. So I had three months of house-sitting up my sleeve. I moved out of the house I was in; put everything into storage. I was applying for jobs left right and centre. I took up pottery at that time. I wanted something I could look forward to each week, to keep me balanced while I was applying for jobs. I hate applying for jobs, let me tell you. I applied for probably close to a hundred roles in that time…

I think most people share that… hate.

Yeah, it’s really daunting. Also, I don’t have a degree. So in Melbourne I’m competing with kids who’ve got university degrees. And I felt… I don’t fit in. I didn’t arrive here from a private school background. My family aren’t here.

I felt like I was constantly having to prove myself, and I just thought, Oh for fuck’s sake. Something’s got to give!

Of course, the end of that three-month period came and I still hadn’t found a job and my savings were running out. I’d saved enough; kept enough aside for the first months rent on a flat if I had to find a place to live again. That’s when I went looking for a house to rent, and I found this place. That’s how this all started. I was just doing pottery as a hobby.

But I used to say to myself every morning, I’ve got a job interview this afternoon and secretly, I hope I don’t get it, because I’d love to come back to pottery tomorrow. I really loved it. I got the hang of it quite quickly, and I really enjoyed working with clay, creating functional food vessels. With my love of food, it was great. As a kid I used to dabble in my old family friend, Ruth Green’s, pottery studio.

Ruth lived down the road from us and I always loved pottery, because, I just loved Ruth. She was a character. I’d drop into her place in the morning before school. She lived right near the bus stop. I did go and see her recently and it was really great because I always said to her, ‘Oh one day I’m going to take up pottery,’ you know.

Pottery’s very labour intensive, you need a lot of time. I had some savings so I figured, Well I don’t want to sit around and have coffee all day. I want to actually do something. It was a really good thing for me to throw myself into, to keep me occupied and keep my balance while I was applying for jobs and getting rejected. Little did I know, this was becoming the foundation for my next chapter.

Then when I stumbled across this, after looking online for ages at either two bedroom flats or really small houses that had an area where I could put a wheel. This place turned up, and these sort of shop fronts are so rare to find, especially in the back streets. And the rent was really reasonable… at the time. I just saw this and went, I could do something here. I don’t know what, but I’m just going to do it. I thought, If I get this shop, I’m going to create a business and I’m going to make it work. And I got it. I moved in and put my wheel in the front.

I had thirty or forty pots on the windowsill with a little sign saying, “Hi, I’m Shelley and I’m building a business.”

And bit by bit people dropped in with other products. It just took its own shape. The determination to want to create a solid foundation for my life and my creative work was the motivation. I just kept going.

I think many people dream of taking that creative leap, but they can’t find the courage. Where does your motivation come from?

Both my parents. My Mum was from a very poor Sicilian farming family who lived in Bundaberg in the ’50s and ’60s. They worked the land, they didn’t have a lot of money. You worked hard. You made anything from nothing. You were resourceful and sustainable. My Dad was one of five kids. His father went to war. Being the eldest son, he went off to Vietnam and sent all his army money home to support his mother and the kids. Both my parents have come from tough times.

Later, my Dad had his own business. He worked very, very hard to support his family. That kind of work ethic that my parents have — I think I’ve taken a lot of that. They were also both incredibly wonderful at creating a home. Dad built patios and sheds and decks and fences. And Mum was the decorator. She loved cooking and entertaining. I was always around that sort of hospitality.

It’s interesting that you’re so driven, but after every three or so years, you get itchy feet…

Yeah, well I’ve hit that point now where the next chapter’s looming, because my landlords are going to be developing this property.

Another challenge…

Yeah. You work really hard in these sorts of businesses, but it is a labour of love. And you don’t do it if you don’t love it. And you don’t do it for the money. Like they say, ‘Follow the passion, the money will follow.’

The thing I also love is that you become part of a community. The local kids come in on the weekend, ‘Hi Shelley!’ And, ‘Where’s Jessie?’ That’s been really lovely. Like I was saying, I didn’t feel like I fitted in when I first arrived in Melbourne. So to hit that ten year mark, having created a business that’s viable where I’m able to use all of my different passions and skills under one roof, and to be part of the community; it’s really lovely.

We have those blood, sweat and tear moments. But the sweetness that comes with that is so worth it.

I sometimes pinch myself because I still remember those days of being unemployed and also those years of just feeling a bit lost and, What am I going to do with my life?

I’ve got a purpose every day now.

What was the hardest time for you?

My mid-twenties. My parents had a very bitter divorce when I was thirteen. Dad being a Vietnam veteran, it’s a very hard life for him. It was a very messy separation. My sister and brother are three and six years older. They stayed with Dad and I went with Mum. At the time, I was happy because Mum and I could have some peace and quiet after all the arguments.

I was a bit of an overachiever as a teenager and in my early twenties; I was off doing this, that and the other. I just loved doing stuff. I was a go-getter.

But when I hit my twenties… it’s almost like life just stopped me in my tracks. I went through a couple of years of constant struggle and challenges. I took it as an opportunity to grow. I always felt deep down that I would do something like this one day. So you can imagine that after doing a lot of soul searching. Thinking, Do I go back and study? Do I do this? Do I do that? Without pulling out the violins, that dip in my twenties was…

How did you have the courage, at that point, to pick up and say, ‘I’m going to Europe on my own’?

It was only when I got there that I started to really struggle. I realised I was so alone. I couldn’t speak the language. I didn’t have a Permesso di Soggiorno to be there. I used to call it my “quarter life crisis”.

But you know, when you go through those times, you look back and go, God, that was the best thing that could have happened. It’s what shifts you to grow. Before you do the thing you love, you think it’s so far out of your reach. So unobtainable. And then you get through it, you do it and you go, Wow, I can’t imagine ever not doing this. This is great.

Being creative in Queensland in the 80s and 90s, I wasn’t really encouraged to follow my dreams.

Your parents weren’t supportive?

Oh look. Mum and Dad separately were very encouraging and supportive. My siblings thought I was weird because I was creative, wanted to travel… They live in the mining towns. We’re chalk and cheese.

Ever since the family split up they’ve found it very hard to understand who I am as a person. Probably part of my hard time, was just digesting that. And then kind of getting to a point where I go, Oh fuck, well who cares, whatever. I’m who I am, if they don’t like it, tough luck. So that was a big battle to overcome. I’m at a point now where I’m a bit older and I have contact with my brother and my sister very, very rarely…

I haven’t really spoken about it on this level for quite some time. But, if I was honest, I think I just went through a bit of depression. I didn’t fit in. My parents probably worried that I didn’t have a set path like ‘do a degree,’ you know, or ‘find a husband, get married and have kids.’ So I think that secretly, they used to always worry. It’s funny, as you find your ground, your parents say they always knew you could do it. But they never say that to you at the time.

I’m old enough now to look back and go, I can see how I probably gave both my parents grey hairs, but I just followed my heart. Where I wasn’t getting support I would just walk away and do my own thing, because I always knew deep down I was going to do something creative and make a business out of it. I had that very strong feeling in my heart.

On the one hand, you sound like the archetypal artist—lost, depressed. But then, you speak about this drive, this certainty that you would succeed. Nature, or nurture?

Dealing with a father who’s a Vietnam veteran and has a whole other set of issues, you become very good at dealing with stress. You become very tolerant, and incredibly resilient. You don’t think you are, and you think you’re losing it sometimes. And then you get to an age or a point where you toughen up. I just keep this vision in my mind of the life I want to live, because I was questioned a lot as a kid. I’ve hit that age where I like who I am. Now I’ve got the next dream. Which is the next twenty years. They say life begins at thirty.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Do you know what? I used to read a lot of biographies. I was so fascinated by other people’s stories. But once I started doing that thing I’d dreamed about, all of a sudden I found that I stopped wanting to learn about other people. I needed to focus on what I was doing. The last two years I’ve barely had time to read…. My everyday is fulfilling. I am living my dream and fulfilling myself creatively.

I find that now, I get inspiration from the complete opposite. I love my walks on the beach with Jessie, my dog, cooking for my friends, going to the farmers’ markets, taking a drive out of the city. Doing really simple things, like planting seeds.

Can you see your life having gone in any other direction? Could you imagine having stayed in Queensland?

Do you know, I think if I had stayed in Queensland I probably would have three kids and be divorced.

[Laughs]. And I probably would still have found a way to be happy, but I never felt right up there. I’ll probably end up going back up there as I get older because I’m starting to enjoy the winters less and I love the warm weather.

Like anyone who grows up anywhere…People from Melbourne want to live in London because it’s exotic. People from the country want to live in the city because it’s exotic. No matter where you grow up, it’s not that the place isn’t great, it’s just where you grew up. It’s that inner desire to want to explore what else is out there. And you often end up going back to where you started. So I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I do move back to Queensland. Everyone thought I was mad to do this, but I thought well, I’d be mad not to! Because what else will I do?

That’s been the underlying motivation, to have a chance to create something that I want to do, that I love. No one else is telling me what to do, influencing what I’m doing, it’s my chance to do my thing.

I walk in and see your piles of plates and think, They’re beautiful, and I’ve never seen anything like that before. But for you, that’s just your process. That’s your every day.

It’s really funny. A lot of the potters at the studio where I glaze say, ‘You’re like a bloody machine. How do you just keep making?’ But my drive to build my brand is what keeps me going. I actually still really enjoy it. When I do a big set like that, I need to do it when no one’s around. I need that time to get into the zone.

It’s meditative…

It is. I’ve had times where my back is sore and my wrists are sore. And people occasionally question the prices and say, ‘Oh, it’s so expensive,’ but I just explain my story.

When I moved in here, I didn’t have very much. I had no money, I had boxes, I had a shop. I will always remember this. I’d sit down, often with a cup of tea—I had put butchers paper all over the walls, and I used to write on the butcher’s paper, all my ideas of what I could do in the space—and I would just sit there, just stare, just visualise. I did that for about six weeks.

I was in my element. Absolutely. It was like, What will I do? Where will this go? My own shop. I really knew at the time that this was going to be a very sacred time that I could never go back to…

The beginning.

Yeah! I just really soaked it up. I look back to that first year. People coming in and saying, ‘Oh, you need to do this! You should do that!’ And I was just like, ‘No. I’m doing this. I’m just going to take my time.’

When I set up my shop I rang my Dad, and I asked for advice on how to build a counter—my Dad’s an engineer. He doesn’t like to fly. Understandably so. And he’s never really travelled. But he got on a plane. He’d mocked up the CAD drawings, done patterns on how to cut the ply.

I’d barely seen my Dad in the past decade and all of a sudden, here he is. It was pretty special. We had a ball. It was that bonding time that we hadn’t had a chance to have for a long time. Men need projects, they need to feel wanted. I learnt then, that for Dad to come and visit, I needed to create a project for him. It was really lovely… He goes through phases of being great, and then not so great.

You know, some days life feels tough or business feels tough, but it’s those occasions that make you think, Do you know what? That’s just part of life. You can’t get bogged down by it.

I could sit here worrying about my life, or I could get on the wheel and make pots.

You’ve got choices. So that’s my belief. Just put your energy into what you want to do, what you love doing, and forget about what everyone else thinks. When you stop worrying and caring about what other people think, that’s when you start really finding yourself.

Livia Albeck-Ripka

Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian journalist in NYC. She has had bylines at The Atlantic, Quartz, VICE, Haaretz, Tablet & others. Livia is a former fellow at Fabrica & previous Deputy Editor at Dumbo Feather, covering culture, identity, politics & environment.

Photography by Lauren Bamford

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