Writer Lara Piu
Photographer Booth Communications Inc.

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]nce a year for the last 17 years, somewhere around 1,000 North Valley residents gather for lunch. They select a glass or clay bowl, fork over $15, and line up cafeteria-style for a ration: one serving of pasta, one slice of bread and water.

“Sometimes people ask, ‘Is that all I get?’ and we say, ‘Yes, that’s the point,’” Empty Bowls chair Carole Perry says with a smile. 

Carole is one of approximately 75 volunteers who put together the Empty Bowls event to raise funds and awareness for the Foothills Food Bank in Carefree. The meal is sparse, but it’s intentionally so; it emulates the caloric intake of what hungry people normally get when standing in line in a typical soup kitchen.

Harold’s Corral will provide pasta for Empty Bowls attendees, and while the food is artfully planned, cooked and served, it’s the vessels the food is served in that take center stage. Thoughtfully handmade, the bowls are crafted by glass artisans, clay sculptors, potters, and other craftspeople from the Sonoran Art League and professional community artists. On occasion, lay artisans and community college art students contribute bowls, too.

“There are also people who don’t think they’re talented who make bowls for us,” Carole adds. “They turn out to be very talented. It’s just delightful to see what happens.”

When the event began, Carole was the only glass artist in the mix. Now the likes of Sandy Pendleton, Pat Isaacson, Sandy Fredrickson, and another half dozen or so professional glass artisans bring their unique talents to the fundraiser. 

“This is an important cause, and it’s our way of doing something meaningful for the community,” Carole explains.

Artists like Carole begin their work months ahead of the event. Some create modern designs while others give their bowls a folk or Southwestern feel. Just as no two artists are alike, neither are the bowls.

Known for her “tapestries” in glass, Carole spends about three days working on each bowl. She begins by laying out the design, placing glass shards on a flat seven-inch disc of glass and playing with pieces and spacing until it feels right before firing them in a kiln and melting the shards together.

“It’s really a mindset,” Carole explains. 

On the second day, the outer rim of the disc is polished back to its round shape, which gets lost in the process of the first firing. The discs are placed over ceramic or stainless steel molds and placed back into the kiln for round two. This time, a less-intense heat makes the glass slump into the mold and create the shape of a bowl.

Artists who work in clay throw their bowls on potter’s wheels and then fire them in a somewhat similar three-day, double kiln process. 

Phoenix Empty Bowls, which happens one week before Cave Creek’s event, also donates their extra bowls. In fact, today there are many ways bowls are donated to the event, which is vital. In the event’s first year, the group ran out of bowls within 45 minutes.

“We fashioned the event after the Empty Bowls event run by Waste Not in Phoenix, and what we didn’t realize was that we didn’t have enough bowls,” she recalls. “We sold out immediately. In retrospect in was funny, but at the time it was very traumatic. We had no idea that so many people would want to be involved that way. It was a good problem to have.” 

Planning for the event involves thinking through a myriad of details, like how the bowls will be washed before they’re eaten from, and how to keep it all earth-friendly. Everything from top to bottom is donated. This will be the second year Harold’s Corral will donate the food, water and its entire west patio.

“We’ve never had to pay for anything, and boy we’ve had to do some begging along the way,” Carole says. “Harold’s deserves a ton of recognition for this.”

And in a new twist, this year art of all kinds has been donated from the Sonoran Art League and the Valley art community at-large for a pre-event online auction that began September 20.  Katalin Elling, Julie Patterson, Judy Bruce, Ed Botkin, Marty Gibson and other well-known local artists will participate.

To date, Empty Bowls has raised more than $250,000 for Foothills Food Bank. The money is used to provide people with emergency needs like food, diapers and other essentials. The event also supports the center’s many other programs like its SNAP lunch program that serves lunch to kids when school is out. Located at 6038 E. Hidden Valley Drive in Cave Creek, each month the food bank reaches an estimated 500 families. 

“I have never known anyone like Pam,” Carole adds, referring to Foothills Food Bank executive director Pam DiPietro. “There is no one who does not deserve help, as far as she’s concerned. She not only feeds them, she helps them get clothes for job interviews and she’ll do anything under the sun to make sure they are in a position to be self-sustaining again.

“I’ve come up to the food bank to talk to Pam and she’s leaving to deliver food to someone who cannot make it to the food bank,” Carole recalls. “She’s like a special angel. That’s why it’s so easy to do this. I feel the most important thing I’ve done in my life is to help her help people.”

Even after 20 years, Carole still gets goose bumps over the magic of it all. 

“It still feels that good, and everyone else tells me the same thing,” she explains. “It’s not an easy job to set everything up in the hot sun, and yet everyone steps up again and again and again.”

Participants walk away with great memories and lasting bonds, she adds. 

“A lot of strangers come together and leave as really, really friendly friends. People meet all year long and remember how good it felt the first time they got together for Empty Bowls,” she says with a warm smile.

“I think the people who come and participate as our guests feel the same way because I see the same faces every year—and they’re smiling.”