Nicky retired early and created a new life as an artist

Photo of Nicky Shelton painting outside her studio in Perth

Nicky Shelton retired early—at the age of 53—because she wanted to and could. ‘But I hadn’t thought about what I was going to do next,’ she says. ‘I didn’t have a clue.’

That was three-and-a-half years ago. In that time, she has been developing as an artist. She’s following her passion, and her enthusiasm comes through as she talks about it—along with a ready laugh.

The journey to becoming an artist

Nicky enjoyed art at school. She was accepted into Fine Arts at university but deferred when she met her husband-to-be. ‘I had a flair for sales and I needed to survive. I knew I was either going to be a poor artist or make it in the sales world. That led into my work with recruitment.’

But, ‘every now and again I’d sort of appear at Claremont Art School in Perth, a local TAFE (Technical and Further Education) for artists’. When she retired, she went back to the art school and studied under D’hange Yammanee, an established Australian artist—originally from Thailand.

‘He was a real life-changer for me,’ says Nicky. She joined a group of 10 to study intensive portraiture with him. He has been her tutor and mentor for the past three years.

But she didn’t continue with portraits: ‘I like detail and I could have continued, but having spent 30 years in the recruitment industry I didn’t want to deal with the different aspects of personalities. I love birds and I love nature and that set a natural course. I started painting Australian birds.’

I found her, brush in hand, in her shared studio and gallery at Whiteman Park, next to the Caversham Wildlife Park on the edge of Perth. She was working on a large canvas where her trademark precision and detail was on show in the unfinished painting.

‘I now roost at the gallery,’ she says with a laugh. 

Steps to early retirement

Three things were important in leading her to an early retirement:

A successful career: Nicky had had a ‘very successful career’ of over 30 years. It included running her own recruitment agency. David, her husband, was also involved—both were directors of the business. They recruited accounting and legal staff, and state government staff for temporary and permanent positions.

When they sold the business in the early 2000s, she worked as a consultant to other recruiting agencies. She had developed confidence that she could succeed in whatever she chose to do.

Timing: Even though she had no plan, the passion for her work was gone. She just knew it was time for a change—time for retirement.

Financial strength: ‘We’d been fortunate enough to sell our business and we had assets that provide us with a passive income. That gave me the freedom to stop. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if we didn’t have financial security.’

Making the dream work

Nicky is reinventing herself in retirement. ‘I’m an achiever,’ she says. ‘I always need to have a sense of achievement. Painting does that for me because I’m creating something.’ But several things have helped her achieve what she has.

People in her life: D’hange Yammanee is ‘incredibly encouraging’, she says. ‘He’s a really honest mentor. He doesn’t give people false hope. I love that about him.’

‘David is my biggest advocate. His support is incredible.’ They’d made a pact with each other ‘way, way back’ that they would let each other live their own lives. There would be give-and-take so there are no regrets.

David retired almost a year ago and wants to travel. They plan to spend a year in Europe, but she will continue to paint while there. That’s give-and-take.

She has been delighted by the support she has from various individuals and particularly wildlife bird photographers who provide bird photographs for her paintings.

The head photographer for Bird Life Australia, Georgina Steytler, ‘graciously gives me her photos to work with. And she encourages me. She’s also introduced me to other photographers who are now friends.’ The birds in these photographs become her models, but she often changes the background.

Goal setting: Nicky understands that success for her comes in two forms. The first is to ‘make an income from what I do, from my passion.’

Second is gaining recognition as an artist. She has entered four art competitions in the wildlife category in Australia and has been a finalist in each of them. A fifth has been entered in New York: ‘If I become a finalist there, we’ll go to New York.’

Her aim is to achieve international recognition. ‘I’d like to be selling my birds in Europe and America.’

She currently calls herself an ‘emerging artist’. When her art is recognised and supporting her financially she reckons she will have ‘emerged’.

Her determination: ‘When I was in business, my husband once described me as a Jack Russell taking on a Mack truck and the truck isn’t going to win.’ She laughs and adds that there’s some truth to the description. ‘Usually, once I set my sights on something—unless I get struck down by some terrible disease—it’s going to happen.’

So, watch this space. Or better still, watch her website space here.

She’s invited me to check out her career in five years. I’ll let you know what’s happened.

In the meantime, her advice for those who want to find their place in whatever field is this: ‘Go for it. Absolutely. If you have the time and if you have a passion, why wouldn’t you? It’s incredible what doors open once you focus on your passion.’

Bruce Manners, author of Retirement Ready? and Refusing to Retire.

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Category: Lifestyle, Purpose

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