Empty Bowls Event Fills Community With Christmas Spirit

On Saturday, the public browsed through the bowls offered for sale at the Empty Bowls event held at the Clarion Hotel in Dunkirk. Local potters create one of a kind bowls offered at a range of prices. Photo by Diane R. Chodan

DUNKIRK — Last year, proceeds from the Empty Bowls event, designated for support of local food banks, were about $32,000. Judging from the full parking lot at the Clarion Hotel in Dunkirk, the crowd gathered around tables of unique bowls and the number of people purchasing more than one bowl, it is likely the revenue will at least be equal to last year’s.

Held on Saturday, the annual event continues to grow in popularity and support. Marv Bjurlin, retired professor of ceramics at SUNY Fredonia and coordinator of the event, believes it first took place in 2000. “I was teaching at the time and the event was held on campus. The goal was to earn $5,000. From there, it took off. It is now held off campus and every year since the proceeds have gone up,” he said.

For those who haven’t yet heard, the concept is simple: Local potters create bowls (made from food safe clay and glazes which are microwave and dishwasher safe) and offer them for sale at a variety of prices — this year ranging from $5 to $40. Volunteers wash the bowls. Patrons choose a freshly made soup to fill the bowls and enjoy a simple meal onsite. More volunteers wash and dry the bowls and other volunteers wrap them in plain paper and pack them in a bag for transport. While sometimes crowded because of the ebb and flow of the crowd, the event is well-staffed, well-organized and fun. Musical entertainment and Christmas decorations create a festive atmosphere.

Susan Hardy from Brocton has purchased bowls for the last four or five years. “Supporting the arts and feeding the hungry are two important outcomes of this event. Everything stays locally,” she said.

New this year was the option to pay by credit card, through cooperation with the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation. That made it easier for those who wanted to purchase multiple bowls. Debbie Dezee of Lakewood who returned for a second year, purchased seven bowls — some of which are destined to be Christmas presents.

“I love pottery. What could be better than benefitting the food pantries at the same time?” she asked.

Behind her in line was Marsha Pritz from Mayville. Travis Briggs carried an armload of bowls Pritz was purchasing. Briggs, a SUNY Fredonia student from Oneonta, was part of a volunteer contingent from the health professions club on campus.

“I bought more because there was help available,” Pritz said with a wide smile.

Sharon Duff-Kibbe who usually volunteers for the event but couldn’t this year due to health issues, nevertheless came to purchase Christmas presents. Tags given out with each bowl, explain that the bowls are part of a fund drive and state, “When you fill this bowl, please know that there are many hungry people nearby whose bowls are empty,” the tags say in part.

“I want my grandchildren to know what Christmas is about,” she said.

The Chautauqua Area Potters is the group that organizes Empty Bowls each year. Its members, who wore tags that read “I am a Potter,” were stationed at a variety of jobs in two areas at the Clarion. When these volunteers weren’t sure, the questions went to Bjurlin or Ron Nasca, owner of Mudslingers in Fredonia. It is in his studio that many of the bowls are created.

He explained to Lesley Auria of Dunkirk that the pattern she admired on a bowl was called “crawling glaze.”

“It is a pain to do, but provides a beautiful and interesting design,” he said.

In answer to this reporter’s question about a pattern that looked like hot fudge melting over vanilla ice cream, Nasca said, “It is not the glaze that creates the pattern. It is a clear glaze. The clay provides the light dark pattern. This type of effect is known as agate ware.”

The light dark was more pronounced in several pieces because these were hand created (rather than thrown on a pottery wheel). The Chautauqua Society of Artists, a Jamestown based group of which Nasca is a member created these bowls in his studio.

Local schools also made bowls which were displayed in a separate area. Stephanie Brash, a potter who teaches art at Brocton Central School has been involved with the Empty Bowls event for about eight years. In 2014, she brought the project to her school and since then has been educational coordinator. She works with the teachers of other schools who want to participate. This year that list included Brocton Central Schools, Fredonia Central Schools, and Silver Creek Central Schools. New this year were the contribution of youth and adults at the Mini Maker Faire at SUNY Fredonia who were taught to make bowls that went to the project. Potters at Jamestown Community College also contributed about 100 bowls.

How much soup was needed to fill the empty bowls? David Caccamise, culinary instructor at Erie 2 Chautauqua Cattaraugus BOCES, said his students prepared close to 60 gallons of soup from scratch. On offer was potato leek soup, Italian wedding soup, and vegetable soup. Aspiring chef Jasonna Jasinski and Max Caccamise ladled out the soup. Max is David’s son and is a student at Forestville High School rather than a culinary student.

“Max asked if he could volunteer,” Caccamise said proudly.

Other volunteers included students who were on dish duty. SUNY students Shan Billups, a sophomore bio-chemistry major from Buffalo, Christian Pacheco a junior molecular biology major from Queens, and Elizabeth Hahn, a freshman biology major from Rome, N.Y., as well as Ian Brown, a senior at Fredonia High School, happily washed bowls.

The music was organized by Tom Gestwicki, an instructor at SUNY Fredonia and advisor to the musical fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha.

Volunteer musicians included the band Point Drive North consisting of Scott McElheney, Mickey Mamp, Berry Edwards and Bill Piper as well as the members of Phi Mu Alpha fraternity’s choral group. Gestwicki played with one of his students, Callie French, as well as his long time percussionist, Steve Grimm whose association with Gestwicki goes back to 1972 and a “garage band.” Grimm has joined Gestwicki in providing entertainment at Empty Bowls since its beginnings and loves the venue.

“I am so impressed that these young men (Phi Mu Alpha choral group) would give up a Saturday to perform at this event,” Gestwicki said.

Sponsors of the event provided key support. Tim Horton’s in Dunkirk supplied coffee. Tuscany Market provided the ingredients for the soup made by BOCES students. Funds from Lake Shore Savings underwrote the costs, especially of materials needed to create the bowls. The OBSERVER provided publicity and clean paper in which to wrap bowls. A Sam and Sons Farm, Donald Michalak, Mary Burroughs and Fredonia Hardware were also supporters.

According to its Facebook page, questions regarding Empty Bowls may be directed to Marvin Bjurlin, coordinator at 572-9151 or Ron Nasca at Mudslingers at 672-6833. The page also indicated bowls that remained after the sale could be purchased. Nasca should be contacted.