Firing Up Connections: SJ Ceramic Co

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by Danny McArthur
Photos by Lindsay Pace

Shelby Toole transformed her love affair with making pottery and clay jewelry into her own business, New Albany-based SJ Ceramic Co. 

 “It’s so funny because it’s one of those things where you look back, and I didn’t know if it was going to take off. I was just kind of doing it,” Toole said. 

The Saltillo native started her business in earnest last September, but Toole has made and sold ceramics for years prior to launching. Her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Thomas Toole, unintentionally kindled her interest when he enrolled in a pottery class while in their school’s dual enrollment program. She also signed up, and though he dropped the class, Toole stayed on and instantly fell in love. 

As a freshman at the University of Mississippi, she continued to improve, graduating from beginner to advanced over the course of five classes. Under the tutelage of ceramics program head Matt Long, she pushed herself to think about what inspired her work. 

“I just fell in love,” Toole said. “I just really found such a confidence in making pottery.” 

After graduating in May 2019 and becoming engaged, Toole searched for her next step. Whether its hunting for jobs, deciding to attend graduate school for a degree in integrated marketing and communications, getting married in November 2019 and moving to her husband’s hometown of New Albany, or graduating again this upcoming May, Toole is seemingly at a crossroads. Some, however, come with new starts.

Jane Wiegartner, a friend she met through First United Methodist Church, asked her to teach pottery classes for the Union County Heritage Museum’s Art House after Toole made senior mugs for the church. She was teaching classes on hand building when she had the idea to create clay jewelry. 

By September 2019, Toole had created 30 pieces of jewelry to sell at Tallahatchie Riverfest. While intimidated at first, she quickly sold out of both jewelry and previous pottery pieces she brought to sell. 

Toole learned what materials worked best for her vision –gold filled instead of gold plated, using speckled clay instead of white – and honed in on her craft. 

“I’m definitely inspired by more modern shapes for my clay jewelry, and thinking about the functionality of it,” Toole said. “I’ve learned a lot in the process.” 

Toole’s jewelry is designed to help people feel more beautiful while also being a fun accessory. She’s made dangly earrings and stud earrings, and enjoys the process of creating new designs. Lately, she’s been doodling designs, and even stayed up three hours one night thinking of what she wants to make for spring. 

When making jewelry, she likes to hand cut each piece of pottery so she can be in complete control of the shape. She flattens it, and after cutting out the shape, she flattens it some more to ensure it’s lightweight. After flattening and smoothing it again, she begins designing, often opting for the abstract. She bisques them before adding a glaze and glaze firing them over a three-step firing process. Since it takes 24 hours to cool between each step, Toole often tries to make multiple items at a time, and said it can take as little as a week to complete the whole process. 

It took several more months to get her business started in September 2020 and settle on an official business name. By then, she decided to attend the Tallahatchie Riverfest for a second year as the SJ Ceramic Co, with SJ holding a dual meaning: her name, Shelby Jane, and “share joy.” The mantra behind it is to remind people “that life is good,” Toole said. 

“I hope it’s a reminder to slow down, to look to their left and their right and see people that they love because in this digital age, we’re so quick to move on to the next thing,” Toole said. 

Since launching, she’s been busy making pottery, updating her social media and working on building a website. While she enjoys selling in person, COVID-19 made her realize having a digital space was important since there aren’t as many festivals. She started an Etsy page, where she’s been able to keep busy with commission work.

Toole finally created her own home studio this year, which she called a step of faith. As she was debating if she wanted her own space, remain at the Art House or find another space to rent, she realized, with the encouragement of her husband, that she “just needed to do it.”  

“It doesn’t have to be picture perfect in the moment. Your dreams, or your visions for your life, will never be exactly how you plan, but you just have to take that step,” she said. 

Toole first purchased a kiln, and then acquired a wheel in February. In the time it took to save money and get the space ready, she envisioned what her wants and needs were, and decided she wanted a space that was functional. While it’s not perfect – heat is barely there and air-conditioning is nonexistent – she’s glad she took that first step.

“That’s OK because there will always be a problem in any situation in life,” Toole said. 

With the studio has come a lot of joy, as well. Toole calls it a new fresh start; because her studio is in her own backyard, she has had a lot more productivity and freedom to create at any time. She likes to keep the garage door open to have more space, and she loves being outside and being able to hear the birds. 

Her husband helped her get their garage ready, even finding a way to drill holes in the concrete for the kiln. Every step of the way, it’s taken a village to create and start her business, with her family playing a huge role in that, she said and New Albany contributed to her artistic development overall. There is a huge ceramic community, and Toole felt her success at her first Tallahatchie Riverfest was driven by people desiring and appreciating transparency and shopping local. In those first months before she had her own studio, she made use of the Art House, and continues being involved, such as teaching Spring Break Kids Pottery classes. 

Toole never imagined she would have her own studio space this soon. She has future plans of having a creative space for local artists and to empower women in the community. She would love to have a creative retail space that sells pottery, and has a teaching space and studio space as well. For now, she’s content with where she is.

 Whether it’s a bridal dinnerware set that will invite people to gather around a table during a meal, building relationships, or a piece that invites conversation, Toole hopes her work invites people to truly connect.

“That really is my hope for all my vessels, whether it’s a dinnerware set or a vase,” Toole said. “I just hope it helps people to slow down, take a deep breath and enjoy their life and each other just a little bit more.” 

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