Juggling life as a ceramicist alongside careers in modelling, acting and singing is not that common. But then Joy Smithers has not had a regular sort of life. The Sydney-based creative is perhaps most well known for her roles in films and TV series such as Bangkok Hilton, The Flying Doctors and Home and Away, as well as a stint as a co-host on Good Morning Australia. However, alongside these public forays Joy was also behind the successful ceramics business Mud Australia for many years, alongside her business partner Shelley Simpson. After selling her stake in that business in 2000, Joy has more recently launched Batch Ceramics. At the end of last year she exhibited at Reed’s Sydney trade fair - it was her first fair in 15 years, and she’s about to show her wares at the upcoming Life Instyle Sydney event. “I am very excited and nervous,” Joy says. However, her ceramics are already in Neil Perry’s Rockpool, and Simon Johnson stores across the country.
Joy shares her story below, and while it’s longer than usual, it’s an interesting insight into the life of a ceramicist, co-founder of Mud Australia and an actor, too.
Register now to attend the upcoming Life Instyle Sydney event that explores Happiness By Design. The trade event runs 18-21 February at the Royal Hall of Industries and Hordern Pavilion.
This post was sponsored by Life Instyle, an event I have attended many times over the years. All editorial content was produced independently. Thank you for supporting businesses that help to make Daily Imprint possible. - NW
Which five words best describe you? Time-poor, preoccupied, driven, tactile, enthusiastic.
How did you get your career start and what path have you taken since? At 13 years of age in response to my mother insisting I study art, I locked myself away in the filthy, abandoned and disused ceramics room at Fort Street High in Petersham as a form of teenage mutiny. This space was down a little corridor off the main art classroom - meaning that no one could see me or hear me if a class was in session. No one in the entire school did ceramics or had used that space for years until I came along and cleaned it up; it was a filthy junk storeroom.
What I didn’t realise is how competent my art teacher was, a celebrated artist herself - Selwyn Smith, and I had her full attention and basically this ceramic studio all to myself for over one entire year until the other years caught on and began to take an interest in clay. Miss Smith taught me extensively and patiently how to throw clay, which is one of the great and enduring loves of my life. If it was not for her I would have none of this and Mud Australia would never have been.
I left my academic standard school in year 10 - unheard of to leave such a school before your HSC. I left to pursue modelling offers from overseas, driven by my older sister Sue who was a successful fashion model in Europe and was my stage mother. At 16 I had left home and was living in Darlinghurst and I wanted to travel overseas. My parents didn’t agree so I forged my mother’s signature on my passport application and jumped on a plane to Tokyo to model.
It was the first time I had been on an airplane or stayed in a hotel. I was not so brave as my big sister Sue had organised everything and it was safe and well organised. I spent weekends scouring shops, galleries and museums in search of Japanese ceramics - the history, origin and process blew my mind. It’s always fascinated me that they throw clay in the opposite direction.
I lived and modelled in Japan and Europe for the next three years and studied ceramics at the University of NSW and Bondi Pavilion drop-in classes and workshops when I was back in Sydney.
I had a small but legitimate resume as an actress due to support roles in Aussie films. But I was so tired of people remarking “she’s good at acting for a model” so I quit modelling to pursue life as an actor. To avoid the dole queue I found some jazz musicians and we formed a jazz standards cover band called “Joy Joye and the Cole Boys”. This lead to a recording contract with Alberts Records then another with EMI, an ARIA and a pop hit in Sweden and a gig for 18 months as backing vocalist for the band Eurogliders. Acting work fitted in between.
I have a history of working as a performer but those who have known me in any capacity on a personal level would know I am a clay die-hard. In 1989 I applied for the National Art School in the three-year ceramic diploma. I was accepted into the course on my ability of my drawing and not for my ceramic portfolio, which was a blow to my ego but regardless I was “in” and incredibly proud and beyond excited.
I had just finished filming the miniseries Bangkok Hilton and had an opportunity to travel to the US to promote the project. I had meetings in LA, auditioned for roles, landed a great LA agent and once I returned to Australia I had many US projects that demanded I make a decision between acting work in LA or going to art school for the next three years. I was 25 and as I had been working since age 13, had many wonderful moments in the spotlight and now was more excited about clay than acting. The uproar from friends, family - the chorus of disapproval - everyone was in agreement, I was insane to consider a life in clay. So I moved to LA for the next 12 months.
I found a studio space with other potters where I could throw clay and fire my wares. I made large hand-built teacups in my sunny flat in Pacific Palisades. But I knew I had made the wrong decision moving to LA. I didn't like the politics of the US and I was interested in acting as an art form not glorified modelling.
When my then husband came over to visit we conceived and I had a good excuse to return home to Sydney. Once my eldest was born I set up a little hole in the wall studio with a kiln and a wheel in my backyard in Rose Bay. When my daughter was an infant I bought a house in the Blue Mountains and set up a studio there joining the Blue Mountains Potters Society.
I was hosting Good Morning Australia with Mike Hammond. Twelve hours of live TV a week and I had to keep a Sydney address for Monday to Friday so we took a flatmate - a girl Shelley Simpson who was a restaurant manager. We became firm friends and after a year or so as house mates she suggested we start a business - me designing and making, her marketing and admin. When we were still flatmates I had been talking about starting to sell my ceramics and had registered the business Common as Mud. At first I hand threw on my kick wheel. We sold everything though. But when I went away for acting jobs that made it hard. It was also exhausting throwing half a tonne of clay a week.
We moved studios several times growing the business each time, employing more staff but it wasn’t until we met Carol Cherry, who owns Urban Oasis, and took her on as our agent that it all changed. Carol insisted we call ourselves Mud Australia. She got us an audience with magazines and food stylists, including Donna Hay who was just starting out. Donna’s second book with Marie Claire was like my personal portfolio as she used our ceramics so extensively. Once we started exhibiting at trade fairs we were set.
All the while I was acting and had during this time become a single parent - it was exhausting. I departed Mud after seven years of operation. We were exporting to eight countries and had nine employees, not including ourselves. I sold to Shelley in the year 2000 and she has grown Mud into the wonderful business it is today.
I learnt a lot about business with Mud and made a lot of mistakes too but when Channel 7 made me an offer to join as a regular cast member on the TV soap All Saints there was my exit ticket. Later I began to make documentaries on the plight of Asian children and mothers living with HIV. I started an education program and fundraiser for HIV research called Shades 4 AIDS, which was launched in 2007 by the then education minister Verity Firth. This lead to my involvement with a group of like-minded people and we started an NGO in the rice bowl in Cambodia - HFCC - Hope for Cambodian Children foundation, an AIDS charity. We primarily stop mums passing the virus to their unborn child. To date we have a 100% success rate. After eight years as deputy chair of HFCC I stepped down in November so I have the time to invest in Batch.
I built myself a studio in 2012 when I returned from filming Mad Max in Africa and started working on a sample range of ideas I have had kicking around for years. I have a massive catalogue of work in my head that I will work through from now on. I literally ran into Neil Perry on the street and he remembered me from Mud and asked if I was still producing ceramics. Divine intervention - such timing.
I have a career as a voiceover artist, a legacy from all those years singing. So I daily go from covered in clay to quick clothing changes and racing off to do voice work but it all seems to fit. I have one studio assistant three days a week so I am often solo; I like the peace. When it’s busy I have two to three more assistants I can pull in as need be. I really love to collaborate. That’s why I love acting. That’s why I love clay. So many wonderful creative funny people have walked through my studio since I started Batch.
What’s the best lesson you’ve learnt along the way? My only rule is I don’t tolerate or work with people I don’t like. For me it’s about the journey and the creative process and less about the money. You can’t put a dollar figure on your happiness.
What’s your proudest career achievement? I am blessed to have come full circle. I feel like the most authentic version of myself when I am making. I call myself a “maker”. I think the love and happiness I feel when I am making actually somehow goes into each piece. It resonates. It’s how I feel about my work. Also, I have a horror feature film due to shoot later this year and I am so thrilled to have worked on Mad Max 4: Fury Road with 10 Oscar nominations as I had a role in it as an older tough chick warrior. I took all of my kids and a nanny and we went to film in Namibia for four months in 2012. A highlight of my work life would be Fury Road. Having that adventure with my children in tow, working day in day out with mostly Tom Hardy and being allowed to perform my own stunts in the Namibian desert, acting with Charlize Theron - one of my idols - is a hard act to follow.
What’s been your best decision? Have kids.
Who inspires you? Kind people inspire me. Kindness in any form inspires me.
What are you passionate about? HIV, clay, my family, my boyfriend, food, renovating.
Which person, living or dead, would you most like to meet? Jesus.
What dream do you still want to fulfil? Study ceramics in Japan.
What are you reading? Useful by Debra Oswald.