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Carleton holds 15th annual Empty Bowls Project

Unimpeded by damp, dreary weather, Carleton hosted its 15th annual Empty Bowls fundraiser on Friday, May 17. Held on the edge of the Bald Spot across from Willis and Sayles, the community meal featuring soup, bread, and functional ceramic bowls marked the culmination of week-long, campus-wide programming to celebrate the project’s 15th anniversary at Carleton.

A collaboration between the Art and Art History departments, the Center for Community and Civic Engagement and Bon Appétit, the record-breaking proceeds—$11,700—benefited the Northfield Community Action Center food shelf.

Founded in 1990 by high school teachers in Michigan, the Empty Bowls Project uses the products of artistic creativity to fight food insecurity and hunger. According to Assistant Professor of Art Kelly Connole, who first heard about the initiative in the mid-’90s, the project spread like wildfire and soon reached the international stage.Alongside Connole, the Empty Bowls Project arrived at Carleton in 2005, when it was originally hosted in conjunction with Spring Concert. That year, with no meal and approximately 150 ceramic bowls, the event raised approximately $700. In the years since, the fundraiser has dramatically grown in both scope and charitable impact. The provision of food the following year increased the total money raised by a magnitude of four. All totaled, including the proceeds from this year, Empty Bowls has raised more than $90,000 since 2005.

Though from early on Empty Bowls was a visible and successful campus tradition, its organizers noted that the project had room for growth and improvement. In 2012, the Center for Community and Civic Engagement began to organize logistics. In the years since, as Connole emphasizes, the logistical assistance from CCCE Environmental Systems Fellows and professional staff members have not only increased publicity, but allowed for greater clarity in the delineation of tasks between campus collaborators. Though Connole makes the ultimate decisions, logistical assistance from the CCCE allows her to focus on what she knows and loves best: ceramics. 

Indeed, as much as Empty Bowls concerns local issues of food insecurity and sustainability, the fundraiser showcases student-made ceramic bowls. This year, students in Connole’s Throwing Ceramics course worked in collaboration to throw, trim, fire and glaze over 400 unique bowls; student workers throughout winter term worked created an additional 250. 

Though the ceramics community is often characterized by the creation of one work by one artist, collaboration is the pedagogical hallmark of Connole’s course. Finn Keilty ’21, a student in the course, noted that “Kelly emphasized from the beginning that the event is a whole-studio effort.” Though the pedagogical emphasis on collaboration engendered a spirit of camaraderie in the ceramics studio, working with classmates also involves occasional challenges. With a sense of humor, Maya Powell ’20, a Studio Art major who has been involved in Empty Bowls for the past three years, acknowledged that “sometimes people break other people’s bowls.” As both Powell and Keilty are quick to qualify, however, the challenges pale in comparison to the rewards.

Though the Empty Bowls Project always involves an artistic component, Carleton’s tradition involves a unique pedagogical aspect. Not only does Professor Connole structure an entire course around the community fundraiser, but students also learn about food insecurity and scarcity at the local, national, and global level. Earlier in the term, a representative from the Community Action Center came to Professor Connole’s course to discuss real issues of food insecurity in and around Northfield. If they wanted, students even had the opportunity to become more involved with the food shelf, which held a grand reopening earlier this year and provides emergency food to approximately 100 Northfield households every week.

The event’s organizers, however, were not solely attuned to issues of food insecurity. Jonah Kan ’19, a CCCE Environmental Systems Fellow who contributed significantly to this year’s week-long programming, noting that Empty Bowls had to be accessible to students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Simply, a suggested donation of $20 might have deterred low-income students from attending. Yet, emblematic of the significant foresight and planning integral to Empty Bowls, $500 was allocated to help Posse Scholars and other socioeconomically-marginalized students attend the event without the financial barrier of a suggested donation. Importantly, as Empty Bowls had been designated as that day’s convocation lunch, the usual money allocated to the post-convocation meal was donated. Such details were not a coincidence. Indeed, Friday’s convocation by Minneapolis-based food justice activist LaDonna Redmond was purposefully scheduled to coincide with and complement Empty Bowls. 

Though Connole and Kan recognized that the 15th Anniversary brought out more community members and yielded more general publicity than may otherwise have been expected, both strongly affirmed that the future of Empty Bowls looks bright. For students like Kan, “It is something we can do to have an impact in our community.” That impact, both financially and symbolically, seems destined to grow. 

If the past is any indication, Connole will not remain content with the status quo; as she vigorously and excitedly conveys, innovation and improvement are always possible. In the near future, Connole hopes to work in tandem with the Convocations Committee to find and scheule speakers that align with the objectives of Empty Bowls. 

Furthermore, she hopes to increase collaboration with Potters of the Cannon River, a close-knit group of local ceramic artists with, cumulatively, decades of experience and varying artistic techniques. The cooperative has long supported Carleton ceramics students, sharing physical resources, information, and opportunities, such as shows and guest artists. Connole also recognizes the potential to expand the event, spatially and symbolically, into the community. Though Empty Bowls is well-entrenched at Carleton, Connole believes the fundraiser could  benefit from greater embedding and involvement within the community it seeks to assist.

If one thing is certain, the pot of ideas for the future is—like the hundreds of soup-encrusted, engraved bowls—far from empty.

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