Discovering the artist inside, one bowl at a time
The fourth-annual Empty Bowls fundraiser was held Thursday at the Oakley School to bring students, parents, faculty and friends together to celebrate student’s work and remind everyone that somewhere in the world a bowl is empty. The Oakley School is a therapeutic boarding high school in Oakley.
"It’s such a happy, positive event. The kids and staff do so much with it," Gini Van Siclen, a mother whose son, Arthur, attends Oakley, said.
This year, more than 280 ceramic pieces were made for Empty Bowls, a fundraiser which started in 1990 when a high school art teacher in Michigan and his students came up with a class project to create ceramic bowls and serve "a simple meal of soup and bread," to support a food drive. From that first meal, a nonprofit emerged, and the fundraising event is now practiced in various forms across the world.
At Oakley School, students taking Build-a-palooza, a community-service class where students volunteered at Franklin Elementary School in Salt Lake City, constructed a straw bale structure, and created bowls for the fundraiser. Other Oakley students were invited to participate, and for the first time, 35 students from Island View, a residential treatment center for adolescents in Syracuse, Utah, contributed bowls to the fundraiser, with some staff and students attending the event as well.
Bethany Elson, an experiential education teacher, said the students were "glowing" that evening as their art was admired and sold.
"This is a unique night," she said, addressing the crowd that had gathered in the school’s great hall, " in that you’re surrounded by art tangible art (ceramic bowls), edible art (homemade soups) and audible art (choir and band performances). And what’s cool is that most of these students didn’t know they were artists."
She asked everyone to donate $5 toward a bowl, and that donation included a lovely meal of several homemade soups, fresh baked breads and chocolate-chip-cookie ice cream sandwiches, as well as musical entertainment by students.
Van Siclen, who also attended Oakley’s Empty Bowls event last year and came from Idaho Falls, Idaho, to attend this year, said she never paid attention to pottery before this event. "I’m just so glad that these kids have an outlet like this," she said.
For senior Sara Valerious, working on a pottery wheel was just the outlet she needed. "Centering clay is like centering myself; it’s a way for me to collect myself," she said. "It took a while for me to find something that I’m passionate about and tonight I get to share my passion with others."
Valerious said that she came to Oakley not interested in many things, but through the experiential education classes, which take place all day Friday and Saturday and cover a breadth of programs, from service opportunities to the arts to outdoor recreation, she was able to discover what excites her. "It’s the most important part of the school," she said. "Everything comes out because you’re being challenged."
Head of School James Meyer said experiential education is currently focused on skiing and snowboarding, but the school has done just about everything. "We try and give kids activities that they can get really fired up about," he said. "It gives kids healthy outlets and the opportunity to do positive things and be kids in a positive light."
Elson said the Build-a-palooza class helps students become comfortable with the idea of being artists. "A lot of the more ‘athletic’ students loved the construction site," she said about the straw bale structure students built, which now stands onsite and houses the school’s gardening tools.
Some students who were drawn to building the straw bale structure were unsure of themselves on the wheel, she said, "but because it was a community service class, so they just needed to keep coming in there and keep trying. That was the sneaky part that I was helping them become artists the whole time."
It is that direction and structure that helps students succeed in experiential education, Meyers said, "they need to realize that ‘I can throw a pot’ or ‘I can take care of a horse.’"
Senior Charlie Ramser said he only took ceramics to get rid of an art requirement. "I’ve always hated art, and thought I was bad at it," he said. "But, I fell in love with it (throwing clay), and found out I was good at it."
Ramser ended up making more than 20 bowls for the event, even though each student’s class goal was to create five. "It’s really cool to be here tonight," he said. "Some of my bowls were sold under the table before people were even allowed to go up and pick them out." Ramser said he really likes the idea of using ceramics to make gifts for people.
The concept of giving back is one that Elson drives home to her students. "Our goal is to somehow stress that you can include service into everything you do, whether you’re a boater or a climber, there’s a way for you to help the community through your passions," she said. Collectively, the Oakley School does about 20,000 hours of service every year.
Elson’s beliefs have certainly influenced at least one student. Senior Zack Ament, who is always looking for ways to help out the community, donated many ceramic bowls, even though he was not in the Build-a-palooza class. "It’s great that I can use my skills to make things to help stop hunger," he said about the fundraiser.
For Ament, working with clay helps relieve stress, "sort of like how athletics does that for some people," he said. "I don’t throw. I like to make things that are different." Ament works with slabs and molds and said he really enjoys putting different textures on his pieces.
"Throughout the day, I’m worrying about classes and therapy," he said. "This is a way to not have to think and just make art."
Ament’s experience is something Elson feels truly represents experiential education. "It’s about tying it all together emotional, mental and physical elements to create healthy citizens."
Beyond experiential education, Oakley School has more than 40 academic classes available. While many schools across the state are having trouble attracting and retaining teachers, Meyer said that Oakley does not have a lot of turnover with teachers or therapists.
He attributes this to a number of factors including the school’s small class sizes of about 14 to 16 students. "With such small class sizes, teachers can build relationships with students and students can build relationships with teachers," he said.
Another reason is the freedom teachers are given, he said. "Teachers have a lot of autonomy in regards to how they can teach within the parameters of the curriculum."
Because Oakley has an open-enrollment policy, kids can come into the school at anytime. The school is used as a transition for students who have had some kind of intervention (as in wilderness therapy or residential treatment), but are not quite ready to go back to their regular routines.
One of the aspects of Oakley that impressed Van Siclen from the start was its thorough intake program. "They won’t just take a kid to fill a bed," she said. "They want to make sure they’re ready."
Elson said that the school tries to make sure that the student wants to be there. "Oakley is very hard," she said. "But when you’re successful here, you can be successful anywhere."
One of the ways Van Siclen feels Oakley helped her son and her family was through its personalized attention to their family. "It’s been great. I really appreciate the Oakley School. They really know about my kid, and they care about my family," she said.
Overall, Meyer said that students’ parents are very supportive, and the school continually strives to keep it that way. "They’re (parents) making a difficult choice sending their kids away from home, and we don’t take that trust lightly. You have to earn it. You have to earn it every day," he said.
Being influenced and educated by people like Elson and Meyer, is a great opportunity for the students, Van Siclen said. "For our son to get to be around people who are following their passion, who have such integrity what a wonderful gift," she said.
One of the things Oakley’s staff emphasizes with students, Meyer said, is that they are all so privileged, and because they are so fortunate, the school teaches the concept of giving back, which is what Thursday’s Empty Bowl fundraiser is all about.
The school raised about $1,256 in the fundraiser. The first $200 plans to be donated locally to the Utah Food Bank, and the rest is to be donated to Heifer International. According to its Web site, Heifer’s mission is "To work with communities to end hunger and poverty and to care for the earth." They do this by donating a source of food rather than short-term relief. Elson said they hope to do another Empty Bowl fundraiser involving schools throughout Summit County in spring of next year.
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