The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County is part of a movement of Empty Bowls fundraiser events employed by food banks nationwide, and for more than a decade, the organization has filled bowls in Santa Barbara, Lompoc, and Santa Maria. This year’s Empty Bowls is the 14th annual event in Santa Maria and helps raise funds that go directly toward feeding hungry Santa Marians.
For those who have attended most, if not all, Empty Bowls events in Santa Maria, the Foodbank and the event come to mind every time they open their cupboard and see the bowls they take home, explained the organization’s development manager Judith Monte, who also coordinates Empty Bowls.
“I was just talking this morning with Mayor [Alice] Patino, who is our honorary chair this year, and she was talking about her stack of bowls that she has at home and loves to use,” Monte said. “The bowls serve as a keepsake, but also as a nice reminder that we need to fill the bowl every day, every week, every year right here in the community.”
The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County is well connected with a network of local ceramicists and artists who donate hundreds of bowls each year. In this network, the hubs connecting professionals and students are local institutions, including the valley’s high schools and, of course, Allan Hancock College.
Hancock’s ceramics program is a powerhouse contributor to not just the Santa Maria Empty Bowls event, Monte explained, but several Empty Bowls fundraisers, including Lompoc and the Five Cities Homeless Coalition’s event. The program contributes literally hundreds of handcrafted, fired, and glazed bowls to each event.
Fine Arts Instructor Bob Nichols spearheads the massive contribution each year, giving demonstrations and guiding students through the bowl-making process. Nichols has several students in his advanced pottery class that have contributed to Empty Bowls across several years, and can attest to the difficulty of making a good bowl.
“We’ve got a lot of new students who are learning, and because Bob or anyone like us who has been doing it a while make it look easy, some of them get frustrated,” student potter Linda Rickett said. “It’s not as easy making a bowl as you would assume; it takes many years to develop those skills of making it a piece of clay, putting it on the wheel and centering it, opening it up, and actually lifting it up.”
Rickett is a returning contributor to the Empty Bowls event, she said, along with fellow students Val Roberts and Renee Bewley, who all crafted several dozen bowls each.
With their seasoned potters wheel skills, the ladies have been spending their time experimenting with a number of different glazes and glazing techniques, they explained.
“If I had only two bowls, I might feel nervous about glazing,” Roberts said, “but if I have three dozen bowls to make, I just have freedom to explore.”
These explorations could include double glazes, Rickett explained, or overlapping glaze work. A variety of hues adorn each bowl thanks to the choice of glaze, and some include several streaks of color swimming fluidly, yet set as stone.
Several bowls also feature a particular glaze that only comes from one place, Nichols explained, holding up a particular golden-bronze looking bowl.
“This glaze is called Cuyamashino—a name we gave it—and it grew out of a series of experiments we did with clay we collected from the Santa Maria River,” he said. “So it’s a local clay that’s mixed in with other ingredients, and you can see that it has a peculiar, iridescent sheen, and kind of metallic quality. And because it’s made locally with clay we have right here, it doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
Truly created from scratch, each bowl stands alone as a one-of-a-kind art piece, handcrafted with care by a seasoned vet or capable apprentice. The Hancock Ceramics Club actually funds the raw materials for the bowls with money raised during the biannual pottery sale—coming up on Dec. 4 and 5, Nichols reminded—so each student is free to donate as much time as they want.
Nichols said that his students get a chance to learn and expand their range of skill, while contributing to the community in a way they may not be able to otherwise. Nichols will also demonstrate bowl throwing with a potter’s wheel at the Empty Bowls event on Oct. 28, where local restaurants will serve up piping hot soup to fill the bowls that attendees get to take home.
“I go to the event every year and demonstrate, and I get to see people walking around with their bowls,” he said, “and the community is just as engaged, but as recipients, in a very rich way.”
The event supports the Foodbank in a huge way, Monte explained. The organization is hoping to raise $40,000 from the event, she said, each dollar of which can go toward up to eight meals.
And after the event is over and the soup is gone, she explained, you still get to enjoy your bowl at home all you want.
“It’s nice, it’s a great conversation piece,” she said. “I had house guests in over the weekend and served dessert, and everybody had their own unique bowl, which is fun.”