When Shelby Toole entered the University of Mississippi as an integrated marketing communications major, she never expected to become a potter. She took pottery classes during college and fell in love with the craft.
Now, after expanding into other creative areas, her jewelry is being noticed by others in the spotlight. Erin Napier, of HGTV’s “Hometown,” posted a photo of a pair of her ceramic earrings on Instagram.
After graduating and attending graduate school for her master’s degree in IMC, Toole began teaching pottery at the local community center before starting her own business.
“I started taking pottery classes as a freshmen at Ole Miss, and I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I took it every semester, and it was kind of like of my therapy. In grad school, I started teaching at the community center, but when COVID hit, classes died down.”
Her love for pottery eventually turned from a passion into a business. Toole describes SJ Ceramic Company as: “Functional pottery and personal enjoyment. It isn’t a brand or business. I picture my work as my art…I like taking a piece of pottery, and letting it slow people down, and letting it invite people in to take in the day.”
SJ Ceramic Company, (SJ stands for Share Joy), started in 2019 and has largely been run through online stores and social media platforms like Etsy and Instagram, but she also sets up booths in local and state art festivals. The majority of pieces Toole makes are personalized commissions customers can request.
The company is largely a one-woman business. “It’s just me, but I ask my sister to help me with the miscellaneous work,” she said.
Running a one-person business can be stressful, but Toole sees it as a method of expression. “In the big picture, it’s a business, but at the center (the art) is the heart of it,” she said.
Toole said she sometimes becomes creatively blocked when she is involved in large shows or has large orders. “It’s easy to get in production mode and have to remind myself to do something fun,” she said.
For Toole, the best way to overcome a creative block is to avoid putting pressure on yourself, step away, and do something you enjoy. Some of her biggest inspirations are artists Keith Haring, Adam Trest, and Walter Anderson. She is influenced by their use of movement, abstract shapes, nature scenes and vivid colors.
One of the biggest struggles with running SJ Ceramic Company is monitoring inventory. Though actually making the pieces is exciting, displaying and advertising the finished product can be tedious and tiresome.
“Even though I have a master’s for (marketing)…the online aspect can be heavy because there’s a lot that goes into selling a product and showing it off,” she said.
Everyone wants to do what they love for a living, but that doesn’t mean we love every part of what we do.
“(Glazing) is my least favorite part of the process,” she said. “It can sometimes be the most intimidating because I’m overwhelmed with all the options.”
Once a piece is made, it is the only one in existence, which gives the customer something that truly belongs only to them. The company produces many products, from plates, cups, and pots to earrings and necklaces, all hand-made from porcelain. All earrings are made with a form of 14k gold.
Toole loves to create jewelry, cups, plates. Her life motto, “drink well,” which means to take in life and all that it offers, is part of her art. Her cups and mugs often have this message abstractly carved into them, connecting message, art and functionality.
Though SJ Ceramic Company is primarily run by Toole, her biggest helper and supporter is her sister Kellie Bickes, who helps with marketing, product assembly, and often travels with her to art shows and festivals throughout the state.
“I was very excited for her because she was always very artistic growing up,” Bickes said. “I would describe her art as very organic. Everything’s bright and happy and makes you want to gather with friends and family. They’re always good pieces to have in your home; they’re all very inviting.”
For those who wish to have their own Shelby Toole creation and support SJ Ceramic Company, they can be found on Etsy under SJ Ceramic Company and at the upcoming Double Decker Arts Festival April 28 – 29.
This story was written by student Taylor Rogers.