Houston Food Bank Benefit

Filling empty bowls: Messages of hope from artists on a hunger fighting crusade

Empty Bowls Houston May 2013  Karen Fiscus with Bowls
Photo courtesy of Empty Bowls Houston
Empty Bowls Houston Barbara Kile
Photo courtesy of the artist
Empty Bowls Houston May 2013  Michelle Matthews Bowls
Photo courtesy of Empty Bowls Houston
Empty Bowls Houston May 2013 Dody Carter
Photo courtesy of Empty Bowls Houston
Empty Bowls Houston May 2013  Paul Burns Glass Bowl
Photo courtesy of Empty Bowls Houston
Empty Bowls Houston May 2013  Larry Zarra Bowl
Photo courtesy of Empty Bowls Houston
Empty Bowls Houston May 2013  Naoka Teruya Bowls1
Photo by Naoka Teruya
Empty Bowls Houston May 2013  Lathe Don Fluker
Photo courtesy of Empty Bowls Houston
Empty Bowls Houston May 2013  Paula Tomlinson 2
Photo courtesy of Empty Bowls Houston
Empty Bowls Houston May 2013 gladiola Rucker
Photo courtesy of Empty Bowls Houston
Relic Bowl by Dr. Paula Haymond Empty Bowls Houston
Photo courtesy of Archway Gallery
OpenVessel by Kay Sarver Empty Bowls Houston
Photo courtesy of Archway Gallery
Jay Calder Empty Bowls May 2013
Photo courtesy of Empty Bowls Houston

An empty bowl is a bittersweet symbol of scarcity and hope, particularly as an emblem of the motivating force behind an important fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank.

The Ninth Annual Empty Bowls Houston event, set for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, is a grassroots initiative in which artists donate their talent for good. For $25, guests purchase one-of-a-kind, handmade bowls and enjoy a simple soup and bread lunch sponsored by Whole Foods Market.

This photo essay captures the thoughts of a few of the artists doing their part to eradicate hunger in Houston.


"Each pot has a little love thrown in," says Karen Fiscus, a ceramicist who's been contributing to Empty Bowls since the event's inception.

Fiscus works with stoneware clay and fire to cone her wheel-thrown creations. She then cuts and reforms the bowls, adds a simple dimple as the spout and glazes them with a simple formula.The end product is a colorful assemblage of one-of-a-kind ceramic bowls that make people smile. In them, Fiscus' giving spirit is permanently imprinted in the nuances that emerge from this handmade craft.

"Empty Bowls is a win-win-win situation for the artist, the person buying the bowls and the hungry," she says. "As an artist, I win because I am able to help others in need — and it warms my heart. The people buying the bowls get a wonderful handmade bowl, a cup of soup and — I hope — the warmth of helping others.

"The people get help they need and the knowledge that there are others out there who care about them."

Barbara Kile begins with merino wool and curly locks before crafting with moisture, heat and agitation. 

"After the sheep are sheared, the wool is cleaned, carded, combed and dyed," Kile says about her process. "In making felt, the wool is laid out in layers. For a bowl, the wool surrounds a plastic resist."

Warm soapy water is applied to the wool and rolled until the material starts to shrink. The resist is removed and the piece is rolled again until a firm hard felt is forged. The bowl is then rinsed and shaped by hand or placed on a form to dry.

For this autumnal piece, the locks were needle felted onto the rim. The finished vessel is soft to the touch, filled with a cornucopia of gifts that send a message of hope, that around the corner there are better times ahead.

Although Kile has not experienced what it means to suffer from food insecurity, she finds comfort in knowing that Houstonians band together to help a neighbor in need.

"Empty Bowls is a way I can directly help another human being," ceramic artist Michelle Matthews says. "Each bowl I make will feed one person for 25 days — and that is amazing."

Matthews uses two different processes for her bowls.

Traditional functional bowls that are wheel-thrown with porcelain clay are finished so that each has a contrasting design, texture and glaze.

Sculpted functional bowls are fashioned from a clay body, then fired in a Japanese-style Anagama kiln fueled only with wood that's fed into the oven for five consecutive days. The goal is to reach temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The final shape is determined by the hot flames and the ashes that pass through the kiln.

"I don't just throw bowls," she says." I create sculptures. I see homeless people daily — this is my small way of helping."

Ceramicist Dody Carter learned the effects of food insecurity while living with her sister and her family during her high school years.

"We survived for about a month on a 100-pound sack of potatoes, macaroni and canned tomatoes," she recalls. "It's amazing how many different ways you can cook potatoes! Food Stamps had to be purchased at that time. The Houston Food Bank did not exist."

It was Craig Clark, Carter's first pottery teacher, who introduced her to the Empty Bowls fundraiser. Every year, Carter has increased the number of bowls she donates to the event.

"I love the concept of sharing art and providing food for the hungry at the same time," she continues.

Carter begins with stoneware clay thrown on a potter's wheel. Achieving a fine, finished look is important for Carter. As such, she cures her creations in an electric kiln and mixes and tweaks her own glazes.

"Our family has been fortunate and not experienced the pain and fear of 'where is the next meal coming from'," says glass smith Paul Burns. "But I can see without the grace of God I could be in that dark place."

As a first-time participant to the Empty Bowls initiative, Burns is excited to be able to have a tiny hand in helping someone have a better life, health and welfare. 

"It is too easy to let 'someone else' do it," he elaborates. "We are all that someone else."

To craft this fused glass bowl, Burns layers sheets of glass together in a stack and compounds them into a single raw material. Although it may appear that this bowl was crafted with many colors, it's the reaction of two primary hues in a 1,500-degree-Fahrenheit kiln that commingle to create the final effect.

The stack of glass is cut into a circle and shaped into its final form. From start to finish, Burns' creative task takes two days.

My participation takes three forms," Larry Zarra, wood artists, says. "I donate hand-turned wood bowls, I purchase a few bowls each year and I show up to demonstrate wood turning on the day of the event."

As one of his favorite charitable events in Houston, Zarra enjoys participating in Empty Bowls because of the positive vibe that emerges from the collective effort. Zarra has been a part of Empty Bowls Houston for the last seven years.

There's no mistaking a Zarra bowl. Each bowl is engraved on the base with his signature, a vessel serial number, the species of wood and the year it was made. This bowl, which was crafted for the 2012 Empty Bowls, was turned from locally sourced Pecan wood and carved on a wood lathe.

The rim is slightly oval because the bowl was turned from fresh cut wood. As such, it developed a subtle out-of-round shape as it dried. The bowl was finished to gallery standards, which entails sanding to 800 grit, applying three hand-rubbed coats of furniture grade varnish and finishing with a hand buffed wax top coat.

Ceramic artist Naoko Teruya plans to donate 100 bowls to the Empty Bowls Houston event. Though her initial strategy was to turn 20 bowls per day for five days, it took her seven days to finish them with all the trimmings.

"Making 100 bowls was a challenge for me,"  she says. "But the idea that I would be able to change something pushed me a lot."

As a first time participant to the venture, Teruya, who was born in Sapporo, Japan, and grew up in Tokyo, wanted to do something to fight the high rates of food insecurity in Texas. 

"Our club, the Gulf Coast Woodturners, contributes to Empty Bowls because we like what it does for our community," Don Fluker says. The group has been contributing to Empty Bowls Houston's efforts since the fundraiser's inception.

Fluker sees his craft as one that breathes new life into a dead piece of raw material. Part of the adventure includes searching for discarded wood, whether dead or dying, that has been cut down without purpose. 

Many tools that cut the wood into many sizes and shapes are used while the lumber is turning on a lathe. The finished pieces may be functional, such as cups, goblets, plates, boxes, salt and pepper shakers and bowls, or more artistic sculptures.

When she was growing up, clay artist Paula Tomlinson remembers her family not having the ability to purchase fresh fruits or vegetables.

"I remember walking through a large grocery store everyday after school  — I think I was about 10 years old or so — on the way home," she says. "I was smitten, mesmerized and totally in love with cherry tomatoes. I had never had them. They were so pretty. I tasted one and had to have more. Of course, I didn't have any money and couldn't afford to buy them.

"However, every day after school I would go into this grocery store and get a plastic bag, put some cherry tomatoes in the bag, and walk around the store and eat them. I was in heaven."

That's until one day management pulled her into the back office, accused her of stealing, took her picture and put it on the wall with other criminals .

"They said they would turn me over to the police if I ever stole anything again," she remembers.

The story has a happy ending: To this day she loves cherry tomatoes and empathizes with those suffering from food insecurity.

"It's sad to think that of all the money in this country, we still have children and families that struggle to put food on the table," she continues. "Nobody should ever go hungry."

Tomlinson's bowls are crafted from polymer clay canes of different colors, designs and shapes. Using a glass bowl as a mold, the layering of clay is like a game of chance.

"When I was younger, my family was on food stamps for a while," Kiersten Rucker, a student of Lotus Bermudez, says. "I grew up understanding that sometimes a necessity that seems so basic can be a hard thing to pay for. We always had food on the table — and we were fortunate enough to have it because of the food stamp program. Once I got older things were fine, but it wasn't until I moved to Houston on my own that I realized how hard it was to afford food." 

When Rucker relocated to study at the University of Houston, even with months of planning and saving, her limited income meant an almost bare pantry.

"I think that what some people may forget is that hunger has many faces," she continues. "It could be your neighbor, a coworker or a classmate. I wasn't spending money on frivolous things, I was just trying to keep the electricity on, a roof over my head and still be able to afford food. I understand what it's like to not know if you'll have food the next week or the week after.

"There is a bit of pride involved and a feeling of helplessness; you don't want everyone to know how bad things are."

That's why Rucker and Bermudez value and participate in Empty Bowls Houston.

This sculpture was made using studio clay and finished with layers of airbrushed underglaze. It's assembled in four sections, each extruded to form four hollow poles. Bowl shapes were molded and sculpted before being affixed to a structure that resembles a flower.

"Although I have not had the misfortune of experiencing food insecurity, I have worked professionally with those who have," Dr. Paula Haymond, psychologist and wood turner, says. "My awareness of resources and services within the Greater Houston area has been an essential part of helping those I work with find food, clothing and shelter. I am often deeply moved by the needs of others and how difficult it's for them to find support."

Relic Bowl is part of a silent auction at Archway Gallery, a new extension to the Empty Bowls Houston event.

More than 20 Archway member artists have gifted works of art in different mediums. Amid acrylics, watercolors, collages, oils, sculptures and glass is this piece made from Kentucky coffee, a soft wood with large growth rings.

"Because the wood has no true center, there is a hole where the center of the tree would be or where limbs begin to emerge," she explains. "The open pith that occurred on the rim reminded me of aspects of Viking bowls hammer in bronze." 

The embellishments were completed with carvings along the growth lines, wood burning designs on the rim and along the cut outs, as well as with carvings inside of the bowl. Opposite the Viking motif are internal and external textured areas that suggest panels depicting fish scales, abstract designs and relief carving.

Relic Bowl by Paula Haymond

"I have not suffered from the lack of food in my life, although as a single parent, it was often a struggle to keep up with the cost of living," Kay Sarver, Archway Gallery member artist, says. "We were very fortunate to always have food in our home."

Sarver's OpenVessel, up for grabs as part of Archway Gallery's silent auction, is forged from steel and copper wire in several different gauges. 

The artist started with a heavier gauge steel wire to create the basic form, then built upon the frame with a smaller gauge wire, opting for the smallest gauge wire to fabricate the delicate lines. Copper wire offers an accent that finishes the edge of the bowl.

OpenVessel by Kay Sarver

Last year, Jay Calder heard about a challenge of one participant to create 100 bowls in 100 days for the Empty Bowls project but he had too many other things going on to take part. So this year, Calder decided to make up for lost time and set an ambitious goal: Create 200 bowls — "the 100 bowls I couldn’t make last spring and 100 bowls for this year." 

 "It turned out to be a very challenging goal when you consider time spent trimming a foot, bisque firing, decorating and glazing, plus another 16-hour firing," he says. "Throwing is only 10 percent of the work.  It required the entire semester of a continuing education in ceramics to complete.  A special thanks goes to Roy Hanscom of Lone Star College - North Harris for his support."

Calder say he generally throws his work on the potter's wheel using high-fire stoneware clay. "For the glaze effects I'm seeking, I fire the pieces in a gas-fired reduction atmosphere, for example to change copper-colored glazes to create the red colorations. I also utilize wood-firings, raku process, and low-fire earthenware processes."