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Feeding the city through art: Empty Bowls inspires creative types to fight hunger with their hands

Empty Bowls Houston 2014
At the Glassell School of Art, a group of 35 ceramicists are participating in a 1,000-bowl challenge to raise funds for the Houston Food Bank. Photo by Joel Luks
Empty Bowls Houston 2014
Michelle Matthews decorating a bowl for the 10th Annual Empty Bowls Houston event, presented by Whole Foods Market. Photo by Joel Luks
Empty Bowls Houston 2014
Lilly Lerner says that a bowl represents the ability to have or not to have. Photo by Joel Luks
Empty Bowls Houston 2014
At the event, attendees receive a simple lunch of soup and select from more than 1,000 hand-crafted bowls donated by Houston area ceramists and craft artists. Photo by Joel Luks

"After what I did, I can't believe my friends are still talking to me," she jokes.

It's not what Glassell School of Art ceramics student Michelle Matthews did, it's what she asked her friends and colleagues to do. They just couldn't say no. No one with a heart and a sense of social responsibility could turn her down.

Matthews quickly realized that her request was a massive collective undertaking that required a sizable time commitment. In the past, she had inspirited those close to her to make bowls to be donated to the Empty Bowls Houston project, a grassroots effort in which local smiths of all types donate handmade dishes that are then sold at a fundraising social benefiting the Houston Food Bank. At the 10th anniversary event, set for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, attendees may purchase one of these bowls for $25, which includes a simple soup lunch as means to raise awareness for those who experience hunger everyday.

In previous years, she had encouraged students and faculty to donate 100 bowls.

Matthews upped the ante. She added a zero.

"It was a crazy idea I admit," Matthews tells CultureMap. "But after I sent an email about my 1,000-bowl challenge, it didn't take long for people to write back and pledge to participate. That's an incredible community of people that will just give their time."

 "What I love most about working with clay is the ability to make something out of nothing. We start with mud."

About 35 Glassell ceramicists are involved in the philanthropic endeavor, with six of them promising to deliver 100 bowls each. Among them are students Renee LeBlanc, Lilly Lerner, Rica Miwatani-Minter, Naoko Teruya, Suzanne  Sippel, Shoko Kadowaki and Kimberly Watson plus department chair Jeff Forster, who's credited with creating a nurturing environment in which everyone benefits from each other's artistic journey.

Something From Nothing

"In other fields, you have to buy materials to create something," Lerner explains. "What I love most about working with clay is the ability to make something out of nothing. We start with mud."

Lerner, who emigrated to the United States from Colombia to learn English, sees a poetic comparison between growing food and crafting bowls — both emerge from the richness of the earth. While she enjoys shaping sculptural objects of exceptional beauty as she gets her hands dirty, she finds functional pieces such as a bowl to be an ancient symbol that moved society forward. A bowl represents the ability to have or not to have.

"When I moved to this country I thought everything was perfect," Lerner adds. "But we still have a lot of empty bowls in our society."

Miwatani-Minter, who's participating in Empty Bowls for the first time, has studied at Glassell for seven years. She loves experimenting with clay's pliable nature and its potential to render different characters. Thinking of the many types of bowls found in her homeland of Japan, she strives to create bowls that enhance the look of their intended contents.

"I try to think about the person who's going to use my bowl," Miwatani-Minter says. "My wish for my bowl is to bring them happiness."

 For the Houston Food Bank, every dollar donated translates into three meals.

Filling Empty Bowls

Matthews and other contributors to Empty Bowls were invited to survey first hand the operations of the Houston Food Bank as a follow up to last year's event. What inspired this 1,000-bowl challenge was observing the systematic approach in sorting and delivering provisions and learning about the organization's Emergency Food Pantry, which accommodates working families who can't access their respective neighborhood food pantries.

"Families and their kids can go in with shopping carts and pull healthy items off the shelves," Matthews says. "They're made to feel like it's OK for people to go through this and that there are people here to help. People are treated with respect."

Houston Food Bank CEO Brian Greene believes that Empty Bowls is a perfect example of what can transpire when a community joins forces for a cause.

"The generosity is amazing," Greene says. "And that each and every bowl is made by hand makes each vessel and its intention very personal and poignant."

According to the Houston Food Bank, Texas has one of the highest rates of food insecurity among children in the country. Officials note that 66,000 people in Houston suffer from hunger and 43 percent of families in this group are forced to choose between food and medications. Map the Meal Gap, a national hunger relief nonprofit, estimates that a third of children who don't have regular access to food are not eligible for subsidized school lunch programs. Feeding America warns about the effects of poor nutrition in children, an issue that's linked to weakened physical and mental health and inferior academic achievement.

For the Houston Food Bank, every dollar donated translates into three meals.

"That's so much more than I, as an individual, can do," Matthews says. "It's a huge impact. Imagine each bowl, at $25, turning into meals for 75 people. Now imagine what 1,000 bowls mean — 75,000 people can be fed. That's tremendous."

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The 10th Annual Empty Bowls Houston event, presented by Whole Foods Market, is on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. For $25, attendees receive a simple lunch of soup and bread provided by Whole Foods Market and then select a bowl from more than 1,000 hand-crafted bowls donated by Houston area ceramists and craft artists.

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