Duncan is organizing an Empty Bowls social justice project for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2014 General Assembly, June 25–29 in Providence, R.I.
It’s pretty simple. Duncan, a retired art librarian from Brown University, is asking people to send her handcrafted (or simply handpainted) bowls for sale at GA to raise money for two Rhode Island organizations that work on issues of hunger and homelessness.
Housing First R.I. operates permanent housing for more than 200 formerly homeless people and their families, and provides outreach to hundreds more. McAuley House provides meals and other services for people who are homeless or struggling to get by, including those who live with addiction, mental illness, and poverty. It provides a hot lunch five days a week and offers arts and crafts activities and other programming.
Both organizations are directed by members of First Unitarian Church of Providence. The Rev. Mary Margaret Earl, a community minister with First Unitarian, is associate director of McAuley Ministries. Daniel Kubas-Meyer is executive director of Riverwood Mental Health Services, the agency that created Housing First R.I.
Duncan hopes to raise thousands of dollars for these two organizations through the 2014 GA social justice project. Much of that money will come from the Sunday morning collection at GA. But the bowls are an important part of fundraising for these groups as well.
Duncan hopes to have several hundred bowls to sell in the Empty Bowls booth in the GA exhibition hall. But first she needs the bowls. “We want bowls from anyone who wants to donate them,” she said. “They don’t even have to come to GA. We’d love it if individuals would make bowls and send them. And we’re hoping that groups of people will get together and make bowls.” The bowls, which can be made of anything—ceramics, wood, metal, paper—symbolize a lack of adequate food for many people.
Already she has a few dozen bowls. Some are ceramic and others are more unusual. “I have several that are knitted, as well as some papier-mâché ones,” she said. “Whatever material people want to use is fine.” The bowls should be about the size of a soup or cereal bowl, she said. “Otherwise people will have trouble taking them home from GA.”
She said she’s willing to travel 50 miles from Providence to pick up bowls. “I recently picked up 30, mostly decorated by children.”
And if people don’t want to make bowls themselves, they can patronize an artist, she said, or get them from a ceramic studio and decorate them. The bowls will be sold for a suggested donation. Many will be professional quality, she said. There will probably also be a raffle for a grand prize bowl.
She hopes people will see beyond the beauty of a particular bowl they might buy. “We want people to look at the bowl and think about homelessness and hunger and what the solutions to them might be.”
Duncan says she took on the Empty Bowls project because, “I like the challenge of explaining the project. And the fact that it’s something a whole lot of people can participate in, and something that will make a difference in the world. We’re also really looking forward to talking to people at our booth.”
Ann Boyd of Bristol, R.I., a member of First Unitarian of Providence, wanted to make bowls for the project, but had never worked in ceramics. Then her sister sent her a recipe for papier-mâché. She tried it. “The results were really beautiful,” she said. Now she has gotten her church women’s group involved. “We’re producing bowls like crazy. Working with other people is energizing. At the same time we feel a sense of social justice.”
John Hartom, an art teacher in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., developed the Empty Bowls idea with his wife, Lisa Blackburn, in 1990 as a fundraiser for a local food drive. It has since spread internationally. Three UUA General Assemblies have included Empty Bowl events, in 1997, 1998, and 2002.
If you’d like to send bowls to Duncan, contact her first at nori [dot] duncan [at] gmail [dot] com. If you plan to send them later or bring them to GA, let her know they’re coming so she can plan for them.
Photograph (above): Children from First Parish in Norwell, Massachusetts, make bowls for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly’s Empty Bowls project. From left: Teddy Yardley and Kian Puleio (© Bev Gardner).