When Melissa Wells Hanks painted an umbrella for her Derby party three years ago, she had no idea it would turn into a business.
“Basically, I just wanted a patio umbrella … and it’s gone from a patio umbrella, to the handheld umbrellas, to the patio pillows, placemats, and now I’ve added the cutting boards,” says Hanks, as she scrolls through pictures on her phone of all the products she’s designed.
And with Derby just around the corner, it’s clear Hanks, owner of Silks and Shade, has been keeping busy.
“Look, I’ve been painting this morning already,” she says apologetically, her fingers stained purple and blue. “I’ve been up since 5. I just had a couple (umbrellas) that I had to do.”
The Lawrenceburg resident paints jockey silks on large patio umbrellas – and smaller items like pillows and placemats – and sells them through a select group of vendors. As owner, Hanks has turned a chance party decoration into a business.
The business started out by accident, Hanks says, after she was looking for a way to spice up a Derby party she threw in 2009.
She wanted a jockey-themed patio umbrella for the backyard, but to her surprise, couldn’t find anything in stores. So Hanks took matters into her own hands – literally.
“I just thought, ‘How hard could it be?’ So I went and bought an umbrella, just laid it out, painted it, and it was cute,” she said.
“Then, of course, all my friends saw it and were like, ‘I want one, I want one!’ So it just went from there.”
It started with a few orders from friends, but eventually some local vendors took notice of Hanks. Soon, Hanks was taking orders from A Taste of Kentucky in Louisville, Two Chicks and Company in Middletown and Lexington, and the Kentucky Horse Park.
When she’s not working on Silks and Shade items, the mother of three is at her day job at State Beauty Supply in Frankfort.
She also does hair on the side, something she says has helped her painting.
“I just think my profession, doing hair, it’s kind of like art – they kind of go hand in hand…it’s basically a hobby, something I like to do,” she said.
“Of course, I’d like it to turn into more.”
Hanks is already at work turning Silks and Shade into more than just umbrellas.
Each patio umbrella takes about 4-5 hours to complete, so Hanks says she’s only made about 30 or so since starting. But at vendors’ request, she started selling products that took less time to paint, like cutting boards.
She also sells hand-held umbrellas and small Derby handbags with a mini-umbrella inside. Those umbrellas and handbags are made through a third party to give Hanks time for other projects, like her work with charities.
As Hanks’ popularity spread, Pat Day, award-winning jockey and all-time leading rider at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, took interest in Hanks’ umbrellas.
Day, along with his wife, Sheila, came across Hanks’ umbrellas through a mutual friend and asked Hanks if she would be interested in donating some of her umbrellas to their respective charities, Race Track Chaplaincy of America and Mom’s Closet Resource Center.
Day is an active volunteer for Race Track Chaplaincy, a nonprofit interdenominational organization that ministers to Kentucky’s racetrack workers. Mom’s Closet, founded by Sheila Day in 2002, provides food, clothing and other resources to single moms.
On behalf of the Days, Hanks has made umbrellas specifically for both charities to be auctioned at charity events. On Monday, Hanks delivered one of her umbrellas to Churchill Downs to be auctioned for Race for Grace, the chaplaincy’s annual fundraiser.
For now, Hanks sells most of her products either through personal orders or through her vendors in Lexington, Louisville and Middletown. This fall, she’ll be working with Keeneland to sell umbrellas there.
Hanks said she’d be interested in working in Frankfort, either through a vendor like Completely Kentucky, or donating umbrellas to help a local charity. Even if her business doesn’t expand, Hanks says she’ll continue painting for charities.
“You take something that you can do, or a talent that you have, and if you can turn it into something good and give back, that’s what makes it all worthwhile. That’s how it all started, just a simple little paint job, and … I hope it continues.”
For more information on Silks and Shade, its vendors and to contact Melissa Wells Hanks for an order, visit http://melissawells.vpweb.com/default.html.