TENANT mag’s Ella interviews potter and retailer Shelley Panton.
Shelley Panton is a potter and an artisan store proprietor. Over the past four years I have stopped by her store in Middle Park to purchase ‘that special 30th birthday gift’, the occasional Able and Game card or to buy her lovely bespoke pottery for styling a TV shoot. Over this time Shelley and I learnt each other’s names and patch-worked pieces of each other’s lives. I have always admired her work, her sense of community and the way she champions other artisans. It is always lovely when one’s path takes an unexpected and rewarding turn. Four years ago I had left my car overnight in South Melbourne, after thoroughly enjoying Friday work drinks. Post a lazy lie-in I decided to clear my head with a long walk to collect it, choosing a route that took me through neighbouring suburban back streets. I still remember the late autumn colours and the early dusk that was setting in, when I turned an unfamiliar corner and spied the cutest store. Lit from within, it struck me as a cottage from a fairytale and a seductive halfway resting place. A bell tinkled when I entered and I was greeted by a friendly black Labrador (Jess) and by Shelley who – while serving another visitor – welcomed me into her combined home, studio and shop.
Hello Shelley! Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. Your studio and store is in Middle Park – a very pretty inner-city Melbourne suburb. How long have you lived here and how does it rank in terms of your favourite Melbourne suburbs?
I have lived here for four years. Before that I lived in St Kilda West, which is the neighbouring postcode. I love this bayside patch, mostly for the dog beach in the warmer months, the wide streets and heritage architecture. It’s close walking distance to St Kilda and an easy tram ride in to the city. My house is behind my studio and store. As much as I love my hood, I equally enjoy getting out into other neighbourhoods for a change of scene. I was born in Queensland and I came to Melbourne in 2002 after four years living overseas. I love that Melbourne has a strong arts and food culture and, perhaps because I grew up elsewhere, I don’t really subscribe to the north-side, south-side politics. I enjoy aspects of both and have friends that live on every side of town.
So you are a potter. When did you become interested in pottery as a form of expression and as a profession?
Actually from a very early age, it just took me until I was in my early 30s to realise I could make something of it. After high school I studied a year of Fashion Design in Brisbane, but at the time I was more interested in being a window dresser and visual merchandiser at County Road. I was working there part-time while I studied and was offered a full-time role at the end of my first year of study. I accepted the offer and l absolutely loved it. It was a great training ground. In my early 20’s I moved to New Zealand for three years where I was a freelance window dresser alongside being a painter and a part-time maître d’ in a fine dining restaurant. Then I went and lived in Italy before arriving in Melbourne in 2002.
Why Italy? Why New Zealand?
I have Italian heritage on my mother’s side. Mum’s parents migrated to Australia in the 1920s. Like all children and grand children of immigrants I grew up listening to stories of the old country, some in English, some in Italian and always knew I would visit Italy – to experience it for myself. I lived in the hills of Florence for half of the year I was there and travelled around the country for the rest of my time.
I went to see a good friend in New Zealand in 1998; I arrived in the North Island just before I turned 21 and promptly fell in love with the place. I’m sure you have heard the nature in NZ is breath-taking and the people I met there were very artistic, spiritual and design focused. I remember it felt like a love affair. I am still very close to a number of people from that time and holiday in New Zealand to visit them regularly.
That’s a lovely story. I am a fan of both of those countries. I’ve spent a few months in Italy when a week’s holiday became so much more, and I have family in New Zealand so I visit there every two years or so. I also always feel inspired and refreshed from a NZ experience. What happened when you returned to Australia and came to live in Melbourne? How did you come to change professions?
In my first few years in Melbourne I took various odd jobs as I built up my contacts as a freelance event stylist. I worked alongside The Big Group and Gloss Creative – both incredibly successful, interesting and inspiring companies. Then in 2009 when the GFC (global financial crisis) hit I found creative freelance work started to dwindle and then I found myself back at square one. I took a short course in pottery while figuring out what to do next. About nine months later, I was looking for a house to rent and came across an old butchers shop at 88 Park Rd. The front of the old shop was perfectly primed for a pottery wheel with window space for home wares and small living quarters. I started to produce and sell bespoke table wares alongside stocking other local artisans and a great range of artful books and staple home wares, then … my studio turned four on May 15, 2013! I have a wonderful community of local customers, like yourself, and people who come from all over town especially for my pottery, which remains a thrill!
Happy birthday to you and your store and congratulations! Building a well-regarded creative business is an amazing feat. What do you draw on for inspiration and what is inspiring you right now?
Inspiration comes to me when I least expect it and often when I am in motion doing something so very simple like walking Jess, cooking or cleaning and remerchandising the store. At the moment Instagram makes me very happy. I love the connection it offers me to my local and global community of creatives.
How do you approach your work, particularly when you might hit a roadblock?
Sometimes I think challenge is a blessing in disguise. I never would have started my business without being challenged. I listen to my instincts and let conversations with comrades guide me. And trust … I do have trust that things will work out. I think sometimes you just have to do something different for an answer to come to you.
Ah yes, I have been thinking a lot about that recently … that true creativity is an innate ability and a desire to look at something differently, to challenge one’s learning and habits. Today, what is the thing you are most proud of professionally?
I remember the day I realized some of my customers were people I really admired and who really inspired me. People like Ronnie Di Stasio and Gail Donovan who were customers right from the start and who encouraged me in my work and my business … and even though it was early days and I was still planning things out, their interest gave me strength. So ultimately it would have to be building a business – with no capital – in the middle of a recession, purely based on timing and instinct. It has been bloody hard work and I’ve loved how I have grown from it. Other professional highlights would be a commission I did for Heide Museum of Modern Art and my Dinner in the Studio series – where I hosted five course degustation dinners with well-respected Melbourne chefs and wine makers to celebrate all things artisan for the table. My maître d’-days will forever be with me!
What are you most proud of about Melbourne as a city and as a place to live?
I am proud of the city for producing such a wonderful food culture – thank you to all those passionate farmers, chefs, hospitality people, designers and artists whose efforts create this culture for us.
What is a favourite Melbourne unique word or expression?
It would have to be ‘Staycation’ – which means to have a holiday at home, in Melbourne. This term became popular when the GFC hit and people could not afford to travel as much. It doubled as an expression that encouraged people to spend money enjoying and supporting their local communities. I don’t know about you but I think Melbourne has grown a lot because of the challenges of the GFC.
I agree. You said something very apt earlier in the interview: “Out of adversity, comes diversity.” I love that phrase for Melbourne. What changes would you like to see in your industry?
Price under-cutting frustrates me sometimes with some of the bigger online traders. Bricks-and-mortar retailers have high overheads, so we need reasonable and decent margins to keep our doors open to our local community everyday.
Thank you so much for your time to day Shelley, as always I have loved catching up with you at work and photographing your store has been a real pleasure. What’s on for the rest of the week?
I am glazing a batch of plates for The Provenance Restaurant and finishing a commission for a client’s wedding. I have a dinner with friends at the end of the week. Other than that I am getting ready for the big move.
Ah yes! Exciting times indeed! New digs in August! Good luck with move.
This is an edited version of an interview in TENANT earlier this month. Ella Mitchell has worked in film and television production, for advertising agencies and in communications for corporates and government departments. She is also an exhibited and published photographer. Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Ella realised her hometown was special after stints living and working interstate and abroad. She started TENANT magazine in 2012, where she documents and celebrates the life and times of Melbourne, by profiling its varied, unique and talented residents. When Ella is not working or blogging she enjoys all the ‘good things’: friends, family, art, nature and a well-penned greeting card. Ella can be contacted at tenantmag.com.au
Life Balance = Community. Art. Laughter.