January 24, 2010

Marathon man: a 24-hour-stint making soup bowls

Jeff Shawhan with two unglazed bowls of the type he'll make;
the larger display bowls will be sold as part of the fund-raiser

Most of us know Jeff Shawhan as an artist who works in clay and displays (and sells) his work at Elements Gallery at 409 Sixth St. We also know him as a champion snow and ice sculptor. Meanwhile, he also has a day job, teaching in the art department of Concordia College for the past 13 years.

In two weeks he'll take on another role -- I'm not really sure what to call it -- pledging to stand in his gallery's front window for 24 hours straight, and make soup bowls for this year's Empty Bowls fund-raiser.

Empty Bowls takes place on March 1. For $15, guests receive a hand-crafted soup bowl and their choice of freshly made (and delicious!) soups and breads. All profits are donated to the Racine County Food Bank and the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization shelter.

Each year -- the event began in 1997 and raised more than $14,000 last year -- hundreds of hungry guests descend on the Masonic Center, 1012 Main St. And they're picky and choosy -- both about the soups they consume, and the hand-made bowls they take home.

This year, hundreds of the bowls will be made by Shawhan, in just 24 hours, starting at 5 p.m. on Feb. 12. He figures he can "throw" a bowl on his potter's wheel in about two minutes. He'll have some help from volunteers, who'll prepare the balls of clay for each bowl. But from that point on, all the work is in Jeff's hands.

He'll throw bowls for an hour at a time, and then -- after the clay has dried enough --
turn them over and create the "foot" which keeps the bowl upright. Once the bowls are completed they must be left for a day or so to dry. Shawhan will fire them, 100 at a time, in his kiln at Concordia. That takes another 24 hours: 12 hours baking, and another 12 hours to cool down. Then he'll apply colorful glazes to each bowl and fire them again, at 2300 degrees, to turn the glaze and clay into non-porous glass. Voila! Beautiful soup bowls.

But the real question is this: Can he really stay awake for 24 hours straight to make the bowls? Shawhan says he can. "When I'm snow-sculpting, I'll work for 24 hours straight," he says. He did just that on Monument Square the week before Christmas, when he won second prize in DRC's snow carving competition. He started helping set up the affair early Saturday morning, and continued working on his own sculpture all through the night. "I sat in my car for an hour in the middle of the night and contemplated closing my eyes..." he says. This weekend, he'll compete in a snow-carving competition in Kohler.

Jeff says he'll stand on a comfortable mat and have plenty of Ibuprofen and energy drinks on hand during the bowl-making marathon. He's looking forward to the event for another reason: He's not a production potter -- see some of his work here -- so the non-stop stint will be "nice and peaceful -- I won't have to think. But I don't know about the 23rd hour ... whether I'll feel relaxed then." In the meantime, he's set one additional task for himself: to look up in the Guinness Book of World Records whether someone has claimed the bowl-making marathon title. "If it's just a few hours more..." he muses.

Empty Bowls takes place on March 1 at the Masonic Center, with servings from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. The cost for "a simple meal of soup, bread and beverage" -- and a hand-made bowl to keep -- is $15 for adults. Kids younger than 10 eat for $5; soup to go is $7. Servers include many local officials and politicians.


  1. So when did this event turn into professional art design - this has always been a school supported program. That was part of the fun of it. To see the creativity of the students. Why change now?

  2. What a great cause marathon man. This is a great event to attend and support! I thought the event was on Monday, March 1st?

  3. I have trouble drawing a stickman and this guy does all this stuff! Geeeeez!! What a Great Event!

  4. Krys: It is indeed on March 1, sorry for the typo.

  5. That is one ka-razy artist!!!
    Way to go Mr Shawhan.

  6. It is truly an amazing event.
    It has involvement with such a variety of organizations to kids in schools, soups and breads from restaurants, volunteers from all walks of life and amazing artists who create bowls for the silent auction. Then, it provides a wonderful experience for the people who come eat and enjoy.