A 15-year career as an emergency nurse left Jules Laidlaw feeling broken. After years of trauma spent with patients in prisons, working on theatre teams and in the emergency departments of Australian hospitals, Jules decided it was time to heal herself and put the pieces back together.
As a young girl, Jules and her siblings would spend hours with their Pop, Jack. Jules fondly recalls time spent bushwalking, learning how to track animals and finding water. Jack had a strong connection to country, loved the bush and shared with his grandkids the importance of that connection. “While he never really spoke of his Aboriginal heritage, I think he always just saw people as people. Pop’s passion was our land; he loved it so much,” Jules recalls.
After 15 years of working in high-trauma clinical situations, Jules decided it was time to try something new. “I had always been a nurse so it was hard to recreate myself, but I was so broken I couldn’t function. It felt to me like this wasn’t fair, but I always knew that if Pop was here, he would say ‘tell me what is fair’,” Jules laughs.
“So, I thought of all the times I had been happiest, and I thought of Pop. Pop taught us to stand strong in our beliefs. He was our rock and formed who my siblings and I are today.
I am always so grateful for my time with him.”
Soon, Jules had left the field of work she had always known a and enrolled in an art class. That was just 18 months ago and now Jules is the owner of The Clay Society, a busy clay studio stocking more than 30 stores nationwide and one international store.
“It took some time, but I’ve found my groove,” she says. “Spending 15 years in clinical settings, I know each day is a gift. I know that finding a new path was needed.”
Jules is a self-taught artist who, in the past 14 months, has been mentored by local artist Andrew Bryant. Andrew has helped Jules develop her skills and sink into this creative life change. First, she began making beautiful clay pieces but soon realised she needed to combine this new-found passion with a real purpose. “I didn’t want to just make pretty pieces for homewares stores,” she says.
“I knew I wanted to create products with purpose because I still had a strong desire to help others. It’s great to see a strong shift towards customers wanting to purchase products that are made ethically, and have a positive impact behind them.”
Jules connected with her brother Steve Smith, who is the CEO of the Aboriginal Investment Group that runs the Remote Laundries program. This innovative program provides a laundry service to remote Indigenous communities, which not only washes clothing and linen, but also provides local employment opportunities in the community.
As Jules explains, overcrowding in housing and a lack of access to washing services can result in the recurrence of diseases such as rheumatic heart disease, trachoma and skin sores, which are found in high levels in Aboriginal communities.
The bacteria that causes disease can be slowed and even stopped with regular washing of bedding, clothes and towels, making Remote Laundries an integral part of ensuring good community health.
Jules started giving $2 per item sold through The Clay Society to the Remote Laundries project, which paid for one load of washing. But Jules’ background in public health meant she wanted to also educate the people about the social and health issues faced by those living remotely.
To bring awareness, Jules recently ran the Kid’s Pledge 48-hour challenge to raise money for the Barunga School to buy uniforms for students. The challenge was a huge success, raising enough money to buy three uniforms for each student, as well as a laundry bag.
The students will soon be able to wear their new uniforms to school and bring their dirty uniforms with them. The Remote Laundries bus will collect their washing, take it to be cleaned and return the clean uniform later that day.
“We know that seven out of 10 kids will get scabies in Indigenous communities before the age of one. This can have really serious health impacts on the kids, but we can change this by providing a laundry service,” says Jules, who is proud to stand with her brother to help support the Remote Laundries.
“We also know that having a clean uniform can improve attendance rates at school,” she adds. “So this is an important program and if we can help kids and community members have clean clothes every day with the help of The Clay Society, that is amazing.”
Jules has also written an art program, called Red Dirt, for young Indigenous girls. “In August I will travel to Groote Eylandt [in the Gulf of Carpentaria] where I will teach the students how to make money from their own business. It’s all about independence and empowerment through their own creations. I’ll show them how to work with ceramics and then they can set up their own enterprise.”
Jules will deliver the program to girls aged 16 to 22 in four modules. She is also taking along local documentary maker Sam Hagen from The Human Story and local fine art photographer Cooper Brady, who will capture the experience.
Jules is humble when discussing her success, yet confident there is so much more to come for this blooming ceramics business based on the Sunshine Coast. Jules has been able to employ staff, support the Remote Laundries initiative and help others create a thriving business, all within 18 months of leaving her clinical career.
“This whole experience has taught me we all have our breaking points, but maybe obstacles in life are given to us as a gift,” she says. “By linking with my brother and supporting the community through Remote Laundries, I was able to find a new, strong identity.
“Now, I have a clear path and I know what I want to do. The world is much bigger place than just you and I, and I feel really grateful I am able to help remote Aboriginal communities.”
Pop’s reading glasses sit in Jules’ studio as a reminder of the importance of connecting with ourselves, our community and the natural world around us.
“When what you do is so entwined with who you are, it’s hard to find a new purpose and tribe. I am really lucky to have new creative friends and positive people in my life,” Jules says. “For anyone thinking of making a change, I say go for it. You have to back yourself. I know we have bills to pay and families to provide for and it can seem crazy to say you’re going to leave your career and go make vases, but we all have the ability to do something amazing.”