Arts & Culture

Empty Bowls project raises funds for area food pantries

These are some of the ceramic bowls made by Marion High School and elementary school students for Project Empty Bowls. They hope to make 1000 bowls and sell them for $3.00 each at the Marion Arts Festival with proceeds going to a local charity.
These are some of the ceramic bowls made by Marion High School and elementary school students for Project Empty Bowls. They hope to make 1000 bowls and sell them for $3.00 each at the Marion Arts Festival with proceeds going to a local charity.

This year, the Empty Bowls project is set to hit a milestone at the Marion Arts Festival: $100,000 donated to area food banks. That’s a lot of full stomachs, thanks to the purchase of many empty bowls at the Marion Arts Festival each year.

“The Empty Bowls project is a National Service Learning Project that my friend and (now retired) colleague Barb Shultz adapted to Marion High School in 1996,” says Jen Thilges, a visual arts teacher at the school. Thilges and her colleague, Josh Gerber, are committed to the project’s continued success.

Each year, ceramic bowls are made by students and others in the community and then sold at the festival. Last year, proceeds helped support the Churches of Marion Food Pantry, the Linn Community Food Bank, Willis Dady Homeless Services and Mission of Hope.

After more than 20 years, the program continues to gain momentum. “The project initially involved students donating ceramic bowls in grades K to 12. It has evolved to local colleges, ceramic centers and professional potters donating ceramic works,” Thilges says. “A big draw the past few years are the wooden bowls made and donated by the Corridor Woodturners Club.”

Bowls also are created as part of the Art in the Depot programming at the festival. (See related article on page 9.)

The ceramic bowls made by area school kids are usually priced at $5, with some selling for $8 to $10. The wood bowls are generally priced between $10 and $30.

Thilges admits to some amazement about the amount of money raised over the years. “It doesn’t quite seem possible. Our team of students, teachers, sponsors and fellow potters are all working toward the same vision: to help serve our community. It makes me incredibly proud to keep the Empty Bowls a tradition that people look forward to each year. Seeing the landmark figure confirms that our community is invested in giving back,” Thilges says.

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“The Empty Bowls Project accomplishes so much for our community,” says Jennifer Roberts, public relations strategist at

Veridian Credit Union, the main sponsor of the project. “It uses the artistic contributions of hundreds of people of all ages to raise funds and awareness for our neighbors in need. Our strongest community partnerships are the ones that demonstrate the ‘people helping people’ credit union philosophy most clearly, and I can’t think of any that epitomize that more than the Empty Bowls project. We’re grateful to be a part of it.”

Marion Arts Festival Director Deb Bailey loves the project, not only because it serves the community, but because it helps the festival achieve an important goal.

“The Empty Bowl sale almost guarantees that everyone can walk away from the festival with a little original piece of art because those bowls, they’re $5,” Bailey says. “And people are picking them for their handmade aesthetic, so that program allows pretty much anybody to walk away with a piece of art from the festival, which is what we want for everyone.”

Looking to the future, Thilges would like to see the communal effort become even bigger. “I would like to see other facilities within our community get involved in making bowls to be donated. This could be businesses, group homes, care facilities and retirement communities. Art brings people together, and extending this project this would be impactful and meaningful to the Empty Bowls project.”

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