River Valley Potters: Fighting Hunger in Arkansas

by | May 1, 2008 | Community, Features

Story by Jeannie Stone

For the last four years a small group of potters in the River Valley has forged an alliance. They have used their talents to assuage the plight of the hungry by donating their handcrafted bowls to the Arkansas Foodbank Network benefit Empty Bowls. The organizers of this year’s event, held at the Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock, invited the potters to attend as honored guests.
The Arkansas Foodbank Network is a member of America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest charitable hunger-relief organization. The Harvest funnels resources to all 50 states. This national affiliation allows The Arkansas Foodbank Network the ability to “bring in more than half of the food it distributes to hungry Arkansans from out-of-state.”
Empty Bowls is the annual effort to bring statewide attention to the plight of the hungry in Arkansas through art. In its 9th year, the event has grown into quite a demonstration of Arkansas artists. At the onset, the benefit began as an auction of bowls, but it now includes various mediums such as pottery, glass, wood, canvas, and jewelry.
Kathy Stottman, a Russellville potter who is in her fourth year of supporting Empty Bowls says, “Many people don’t realize we have hungry people right here in our community. My daughter brought a friend home from school years ago who told us that often times her family did not eat supper.”
“And it supports our community,” adds Polly Hardin, a fellow potter. In fact, 96% of funds received are allocated to participating programs. The Arkansas Foodbank Network, through 400 member agencies serving 41 counties, feeds 23,000 hungry Arkansans each week.

Creating bowls for the Empty Bowls auction requires several weeks. The potters must create the vessels on the potter’s wheel or by building with coil strips. Even with years of experience not every lump of clay turns into the desired form or with the intended results.
The pieces are then bisque-fired, glazed and fired again in an electric kiln. Because the group traditionally meets once a week for a three hour session, the process stretches into several weeks.
Raku pieces, however, require slightly different treatment requiring the use of a butane-powered kiln which allows the pottery to fire at a higher temperature. The manipulation of raku after the firing is what renders the pieces desirable. It is the swinging, crackling, smoldering, and intermingling with water, at specific times, that coax the highly desired copper and iridescent colors to emerge. Raku sacrifices its utility for beauty. It is not recommended for serving food or holding water and is purely decorative.
The lone male potter in the group is Winston Taylor who has taught most of the participating River Valley women the craft. “This community supports me. I’ve been given a gift, and I am in a position to share the fruits of my talent with others.”

This generosity epitomizes the Bible quote by which Taylor aspires to follow. “To whom much is given, from him much will be required.” Luke 12:48.
Taylor is a 2008 Arkansas Living Treasure nominee, an award presented annually to an individual in the state who has shown mastery in their chosen art form, has taken steps to preserve the art form, and has impacted the community with his or her generosity.
Fellow potter, Anita Allen, agrees, “I get more joy out of giving than receiving.”
Stottman concludes, “There may be someone who reads this article … and decides they’d like to help with this project. Maybe that person is not a potter. Maybe he is a painter or maybe he wants to make a donation. Everybody can help.”
And hunger in Arkansas impacts us all.

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