"He's got an aura that draws you in" is how Pat Burness, past executive director of the Clatsop County Women's Resource Center, describes Richard Rowland, Clatsop Community College art professor and the potter behind the region's Soup Bowl events.
There are two events this month: the soup bowl for Tillamook County Women's Resource Center is 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, April 17, at the Old Mill Marina in Garibaldi.
The Clatsop County WRC event is at the Seaside Convention Center from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 29.
In the beginning
Both Soup Bowl events are made possible by Rowland's merry band of potters. Or, put another way, the bowls have been created by the mission of the resource centers to put an end to domestic violence in our communities.
The potter's wheel spins both ways.
Seven years ago, Burness' assistant Amy Eaton came back from Bozeman, Mont., with a fundraising idea involving soup bowls. Burness encouraged her to talk to Rowland about the project.
"He said yes! He said he'd do it," was the excited response.
And, as Burness tells it, "Of course, then Richard turned it around and made it an honor that we had asked him. He's just that kind of guy."
The partnership of art and community fundraising had begun.
Art and life
"But we didn't just want to hand over our art," says Rowland. "We wanted a higher vision because it really isn't about the money, it isn't even about the art - it's about forming relationships in the community."
The simple idea of creating an empty bowl that could be filled with soup has indeed created a network of community relationships that have been strengthened over the years.
Hundreds of people come together to create the soup bowl events: from the group of potters who throw the bowls to the folks who tend the Dragon Kiln - a wood burning kiln where the bowls are fired, to the soup makers and chefs, to the people who sell the tickets, to the volunteers who serve at the event itself, to the community members who purchase bowls and fill them with hot, homemade soup - it takes a village.
And everyone who touches the bowls seems to tell the same tale of involvement.
Ben Thompson wandered into this venture by chance. His wife was taking a CCC class. So he came into the studio one day and "threw a little lumpy bowl on the wheel, but I was hooked."
"I found something that had been looking for me," says Thompson, who spent time in Astoria as a youngster and has come back to assist Rowland during the soup bowl season.
"We start by making our own clay," he continues. "It's a white clay recycled from the studio. From the beginning, we're thinking about how will the soup look in the bowls."
Twelve potters - students, friends and others - throw and prepare the bowls. More than 900 bowls will be fired in order to have 450 perfect bowls for the events. It doesn't end when the bowls come out of the kiln.
"Oh, no," says Thompson. "That's when we look at each bowl and critique them. We decide which will serve the purpose best."
Rowland adds, "We might say, well, this one doesn't carry the technique quite as well as that one, but it has more heart."
Rowland takes two bowls slated for the events and lovingly places one in my hands.
"You see," he says, pointing to a splash of grey, "this is where wood ash fell onto the bowl, and here," he points to three small cross-hatchings near the foot of the bowl, "it was sitting on shells that have left their mark."
"We may sand those rough edges down a bit more," he adds, his artist's eye still at work.
Anagama Dragon Kiln
Burness, who has helped on many of the long firings at the Dragon Kiln on Rowland's property in the Lewis and Clark area, describes the scene as another opportunity for gathering community.
"We have food and sit around in old chairs laughing, talking about art, who's in town. We drift into philosophy," she shares.
Rowland, too, talks about the kiln in reverential tones.
"The kiln is a living thing. It reflects its community. We need bone-dry wood cut in specific sizes - that sometimes takes a year or more of planning."
"Everything has to be integrated in a lyrical way."
Red alder and Doug-fir are the preferred wood for use in the kiln, which takes anywhere from 48 to 96 hours just to reach its firing temperature of 2,400 degrees.
"We stack the wood thinking through the process - where will we be when we get to this point in the firing?" says Thompson.
One bowl, one world
Rowland, Thompson and many of the other artists will be present at the Soup Bowl events.
"Homemade soups - are you kidding!" says Rowland. "Of course, we'll be there."
When asked how the mission of the women's shelters has affected their part of the process, there is some reflective thinking.
"We have learned a lot from working with the women. Artists need to be 'home.' We need to fit into a place and find a place where we can contribute," says Rowland.
"I have met a lot of women I wouldn't ordinarily have had the chance to meet," says Thompson. "I've learned about their work."
For Burness, the question is poignant. Of necessity, much of the work of healing domestic violence must be held in confidence. "Women often do their work without being recognized," she explains. "But the artists are seeing us in our world. Our art is helping and connecting someone in pain to a path of healing."
"We are saying to each other, 'Please, come be part of our world and we'll be part of yours," she adds.
Your part: Fill a bowl
For Kimber Lundy, board member at TCWRC and Soup Bowl committee member, the connection is real. "This is heart work for me because I used the services 20 years ago and I promised that if I ever had the chance, I would give back."
"We will close the office on the Friday before our Soup Bowl dinner to make the bread," she continues. "We make the dough, knead it, watch it rise. It gives us a chance to spend time together in a different way."
The network of relationships that Rowland and Burness envisioned seven years ago has come to pass. Now it's time for you to do your part: Fill a bowl.