March 17, 2011

Empty Bowls Nourishes All of Us -- Thoughts from Co-Founder & Chair Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry is a potter and a co-founder and chair of Empty Bowls Houston, which has been held annually since 2005 to benefit the Houston Food Bank. He is a co-founder of ClayHouston, a regional ceramics guild, and has served as President, Secretary, and Treasurer and as co-chair of ClayHouston's first all-clay Festival. Thomas also serves as a docent and as a member of the Board of Directors for the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, where he was also once an artist-in-residence. Here, he shares his thoughts and inspiration for Empty Bowls Houston.

Photo of Thomas Perry by Karen Bruce.
In 2004, I proposed to HCCC staff how wonderful it would be if Houston held an Empty Bowls event and if HCCC would host it. The staff agreed, provided I could enlist the working team. Marie Weichman, Lydia Busch, and I recruited other team members and brought in the Houston Food Bank. At our inaugural event in April 2005, people were waiting in line for HCCC's doors to open. They wanted to help fill the empty bowls of those in need and to fill a need in their own lives for a handmade bowl.

This is just what Marie, Lydia, and I had hoped for. We were building on a tradition that began 20 years ago when a Michigan high-school ceramics class created 120 bowls to raise money for a local food drive, the first-ever Empty Bowls event. We were also building on the millennia-old tradition of bowls being utilized for serving food and drink. What better symbol than the empty bowl to represent the need for nourishment!

Sending out the Call for Bowls is like flipping a switch to activate individuals and groups. Many local college ceramics departments host Bowl-A-Thons, where students, staff, and a few outside potters spend a half day making dozens of bowls. During the following weeks, as students trim, glaze, and fire all these bowls, they improve their skills and gain insight while working on others' bowls as well as their own. Jennifer Herzberg of Baytown's Lee College fosters collaborations—always great learning opportunities—between ceramics and life drawing students, producing bowls decorated inside and out with drawings of the human figure.

SJC Bowl-A-Thon. Photo by Paula Murphy.
Early on, we reached out to the broader craft community, inviting woodturners, fiber artists, glass artists, mosaicists, blacksmiths, and other artists to create bowls. They won't be functional, they argued. It's not about bowl function, we countered, it's about bowl spirit. Artists working in all types of media have accepted the challenge of the bowl, then unleashed their imaginations and problem-solving skills.

We promote Empty Bowls through hands-on and demonstration events, such as HCCC's Hands-On Houston. Kids experience playing with clay and expanding their creativity. And so do adults. More than one father has kept his kids waiting while he completed his second bowl. Urban Harvest Farmers' Market offers us a center space, and we multi-task, making bowls, while explaining what we're doing, how long it takes to make a bowl, and what Empty Bowls is all about. We're educating people about clay and craft, as well as hunger.

Empty Bowls Houston at HCCC. Photo by Paula Murphy.

Empty Bowls Houston at HCCC. Photo by Paula Murphy.
Come to this Saturday's 7th Annual Empty Bowls Houston, 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM, at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and Lawndale Art Center. The event is free, and you can enjoy musicians, demonstrators, and even a stilt-walker. But to really make a difference, purchase one or a dozen handmade bowls, entitling you to a light lunch from Whole Foods Market. For each $25 bowl, you'll help the Houston Food Bank provide 25 people three nutritious meals for a day. And your bowl, forged by hand, passion, and talent, will remind you that you've "taken a bite out of hunger" and will nourish you with the pleasure of owning it, as it once nourished an artist who made it.

To learn more about Thomas Perry and his pottery, visit

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