BY ANTONIA STEELE
UTM University Relations Intern
MARTIN (November 9) – With a love of pottery and helping others, finding the grassroots movement “Empty Bowls Project” gave David McBeth, UT Martin professor of visual arts, a new way to use his passions to help fight food insecurity in the community he calls home.
McBeth’s work with Empty Bowls began 17 years ago when he proposed the idea for a service project for Trinity Presbyterian Church in Martin. He hoped for young members of the church to come to the studio and make bowls for a charity soup dinner.
“I said, ‘We could sell the bowls to people at Trinity and maybe raise $500 for We Care,’ and the pastor looked at me and said, ‘That’s a great idea. Why would we just do it for Trinity, and why only 50 bowls?’, and without skipping a beat, I said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it for the whole city of Martin, and we’ll do 500 bowls,’” McBeth recounted.
That event was the first iteration of Martin’s Empty Bowls Soup Supper, and McBeth’s reach has grown ever since. More recently, McBeth and his students have created 1,500 bowls each year to raise money for food insecurity relief programs sponsored by We Care Ministries Inc., a local organization that provides a variety of services to community members in need. Funds raised at Empty Bowls Soup Suppers support We Care’s food pantry. Two years ago, the First-Year Initiative program at UT Martin began a cracker drive to allow students across the university to help out.
“ … The first year, it was a phenomenal number of like 100 boxes of crackers, so the four-packs of saltines. That was overwhelming, and it was unbelievable. Last year, it was like 400 boxes that were donated,” McBeth said.
By getting his students involved with the soup suppers, McBeth hopes to not only improve their skills as artists, but also make them better members of the community.
“The first time, they can’t believe it. The first time they come to a soup event, it’s just overwhelming. The excitement that the community has for the bowls gets passed on to the students,” McBeth said. “The students figure out that two things are happening: they’re helping the community, and they’re learning to be better potters at the same time because that’s how you learn, through repetition.”
For McBeth, the most gratifying part of hosting the annual Empty Bowls Soup Suppers is knowing that the craft he has spent years honing and the connections he has with those around him can improve his community.
“I can make bowls all day. I can make 50, 100 bowls a day, but big deal if they’re just a stack of bowls in my closet,” McBeth said. “There’s no way of knowing I would write a check for $15,000 to We Care, but I have an ability to make bowls, and I have the community’s support that allows the community to make that donation to We Care.”
This year, the event has been moved online because of safety concerns for the university and Martin communities. The bowls were listed online for the public to select after making a $15 donation November 15, and there are counters to show how many of each bowl is still available. Customers can pick up their bowls from 12–3 p.m., Sunday, November 22, at the Fine Arts Building. Despite these changes, McBeth is determined to provide the best possible experience for the community.
“There was some real joyful surprise when I started spreading the word that we’re going to do it. It’s not going to be the same, but we’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it online,” McBeth said. “That means a lot to me that it’s important to the community to have this event happen.”
Empty Bowls will see roughly 1,200 bowls this year, with a majority handcrafted by McBeth himself.
“Like so many other aspects of our lives, Martin Empty Bowls looks different in 2020,” McBeth said. “I know how much the community enjoys congregating around the most amazing soup potluck known and the wonderful fellowship that accompanies that gathering. As the potter, I love to hear the joy as folks search through the tables and tables of bowls. That too will be missed this year.”
COVID-19 has not only changed the way McBeth hosts the Empty Bowls Soup Supper, but it has reinforced concepts that he uses in his teaching and everyday life. The need for clear communication has become more important to him than ever as he is no longer able to help his students with their projects hands-on. He has also been reminded of the significance of taking the time to slow down and be patient with life.
“Find a good book. Go home and read. Write letters. Somebody was complaining about email and computers and stuff earlier, and somebody said, ‘What would you rather do, write a letter?’ and I was like, “Yeah! What would be so bad about slowing down and taking the time to really think about the person you’re communicating with?’” McBeth said. “That wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have this new life to live through.”
While McBeth encourages his students to take the time to slow down during these unprecedented times, he is only working harder to ensure there are enough bowls to be sold during the Empty Bowls event to help families in need in the Martin community.
“I hope, in spite of the pandemic, that Empty Bowls can bring the community together,” he shared.