February 13, 2010

Gallery window becomes soup bowl production line

It wasn't your usual window display.

There on Sixth Street Friday night -- just half a block from what sounded like quite a party at Park 6 (to us and to three or four police cars) -- was Jeff Shawhan in the window of his ceramics gallery, making soup bowls. One bowl after another after another after...

We stopped in at Elements, 409 Sixth St., a little before midnight to see how Jeff was doing. He'd started a marathon 24-hour bowl "throwing" marathon at 5 p.m., and promises to continue until 5 p.m. Saturday, making bowls for the upcoming Empty Bowls benefit for the Racine County Food Bank and the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization shelter. We've written about that before, HERE and HERE, so we won't bore you those details again.

For now, let's concentrate a bit upon Shawhan's effort, although he makes it look effortless. He cuts off a chunk of clay, maybe a 3" cube, and plops it down on the potter's wheel. A foot on the pedal starts the wheel turning and both hands on the clay transform the cube into a ball. Then a finger here, a finger there... a few drops of water...a squeeze... and before you know it a soup bowl is spinning around. A little fine tuning, a wire dragged across the bottom of the bowl to separate it from the wheel -- and it's done! Maybe two minutes from start to finish.

Well, it's almost done. The bowl still has to dry, have a "foot" attached, be glazed, and fired in the kiln for 24 hours. But for now, the "production run" portion of the job is done. Shawhan admits this is his least-favorite part of the job, and one he avoids in his ceramics career. But for one night a year, for Empty Bowls, he's strictly a production-line worker, turning out soup bowl after soup bowl. He'd gotten off to a slow start -- real life intervened for almost an hour -- but by midnight he was hitting his stride. More than 60 bowls were already done, and Shawhan expects to make about three hundred by the time the night is over.

In plenty of time for soup. 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.

Paul Schiele of the Empty Bowls committee, right,
helps Shawhan move a table's worth of turned bowls

Here's a link to some great pictures of Jeff at work, taken before I arrived by Dan White.


  1. Can I buy a Shawhan bowl for $15 without the soup, before the event? If so, how and where? This could help sales, because some of us cannot attend.

  2. jeff shawhan2/13/2010 8:45 PM

    Thanks for asking, Ill have some of the bowls at the galery on Saturday before the event. So, come on down between 1-5pm on that day! All proceeds from the sales of the bowls will go to Empty bowls of Racine!

  3. Great idea! Way to use your talents.