Busy hands craft bowls for less fortunate

By WilliamPrentiss

The first clay bowl Gary Jackson ever made sits somewhere in his house. He has no idea where the rest of the many bowls he’s made over the past six years are. Some were sold, some were given away and some will go to Lillstreet Art Center’s 4th annual Empty Bowls Benefit.

On March 5, the Lillstreet Art Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood Ave., plans to hold its 4th annual Empty Bowls benefit event to fight hunger. Attendees will receive a bowl made by teachers like Jackson, artists and students from the Lillstreet Art Center for $20. Soup, along with bread, will be served inside those bowls by First Slice Café. Money will go to the cafe, a local hunger-fighting organization located inside the Art Center.  A silent auction will also be conducted to raise money in which textiles, metal works and ceramic works will be auctioned off.

First Slice Café provides food paid for by customer purchases and donations to several soup kitchens in the Chicago area. Among them will be a new soup kitchen with the Night Ministry opening in the next few weeks. Ryan Cooper, manager of First Slice Café, said about 600 people attended last year’s Empty Bowls event, which was double than the year before. This year they hope for 1,200 to come and want to raise about $20,000.

Jackson has taught at the Art Center for the past six years and has a studio on its upper floor. He and his students can be found preparing bowls—many of which will be sold at the event on March 5—in the beginning wheel throwing class on Tuesdays in the Art Center.  A maze of shelves, wheels, ceramics, tubs of glaze, baking clay and people fill the noisy space.

Cindy Gaffney is in the intermediate wheel throwing class at the center.  She attended last year’s empty bowls event, but didn’t give any of hers away.  She will for this year’s event, however, and said she is glad to help.

“Knowing that somebody else is going to eat out of it and take it home with them is kind of cool,” Gaffney said. “When you donate a piece like that, it’s like it’s a piece of you. Your blood, sweat and tears have gone into that. There’s so much pride in something that you made with your own hands like that.”

The Art Center isn’t limited to clay. They teach printmaking, painting and drawing, metalsmithing and jewelry, glass, textiles and digital art. These departments will all have pieces sold at Empty Bowl’s silent auction.

Jane Hanna, Lillstreet Art Center’s Marketing and Communications director, said this will be her first experience organizing the event. She said she organized several other Lillstreet community and charitable events.

“We’re part of a larger community of artists working in clay,” Hanna said. “We try to be a part of that community through exhibited pieces from potters who are emerging around the world and established artists. We’re trying to spark that passion in new students, and also provide a place for people who do have a experience working in clay.”

In the 35 years since Bruce Robins founded the center, Hanna said the Chicago community has changed. Robbins started out as a clay salesmen and found many of his customers lived lives different than what most people consider normal.  Hanna said now their students come from many different backgrounds and occupations and make time for clay.

“When you say ‘ceramics community in Chicago,’ it’s not just people who make a living off of clay, but it’s people who go out of their way to get here once a week because that’s their spiritual center or what they do to get away,” Hanna said. “They come here to get their hands dirty and feel in touch with something.”

For more information about classes and events at Lillstreet Art Center, visit LillStreet.com. To donate to First Slice Café, visit FirstSlice.org.