Local potter Sandra Heaven talks Empty Bowls

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2. A close-up of Sandra Heaven working a bowl at Meek High School’s pottery studio on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in preparation for this year’s Empty Bowls of Cullman County fundraiser. (Cayla Grace Murphy)

CULLMAN, Ala. – For 19 years, Sandra Heaven has been throwing (the process of shaping clay on a pottery wheel) bowls to benefit her community through Cullman First United Methodist Church’s Empty Bowls of Cullman County chili dinner. The fundraiser benefits the food bank at Cullman Caring for Kids by rallying local potters to make keepsake bowls that will be filled with deliciously spiced chili for a small fee, filling attendees’ bellies and opening a conversation about food insecurity.

Heaven says her passion for pottery began in her college years but blossomed after she began teaching others to throw and sculpt, from elementary to college-aged students. Heaven was head of the art department at Wallace State Community College until 2005, and those last few years, she said, were when Empty Bowls got its start.

“Tanya Shearer contacted me when I was at Wallace State,” Heaven explained, saying it sparked a partnership that has lasted every year Empty Bowls has been hosted in Cullman. “So we started the Empty Bowls there. When I retired, I moved out to Winston County, and we wanted to do the campaign here in Winston. Now we do Cullman and Winston!” she laughed, noting that while Winston County is taking a break from Empty Bowls this year, they’re hoping to ramp up again next year.

Heaven said that while she has experience teaching in nearly every medium imaginable, pottery has her heart, leading her to begin a pottery program through Meek High School after starting the Winston County Arts Council.

“When I retired, because I liked pottery the best, I continued doing that. That’s what I’m doing here,” Heaven said, gesturing to the impressive pottery studio located in the old Meek High School field house. The studio is impressive, boasting several turning stations, glazes, imprints and every tool imaginable needed to make anything out of a humble lump of earth.

“Kids love it, they enjoy it, making things with clay. It’s tactile,” shared Heaven, who said art class is a nice reprieve from typical desk work for students, giving them a chance to work with their hands and flex their creative muscles.

Heaven stressed the importance of including arts in the education approach, saying pottery itself is a heritage skill that she worries might be forgotten as we move into a digital age.

“I don’t want pottery to be forgotten. It needs to be a program that continues, and unless you have someone who really loves it, they’re not going to promote it. So I push it!” she exclaimed, noting that she’s up at the studio five or six days a week.

Heaven said preparing for Empty Bowls is a year-long affair, with over a thousand bowls being turned, sculpted, fired and glazed to feed the hungry masses. With each bowl taking a little over a week from start to finish, it’s a time-consuming process, but one she said she wouldn’t trade for anything.

“I’ve been retired 19 years, but I haven’t stopped! I tried to not do anything for a year, and it about drove me nuts!” she laughed.

The 19th Annual Empty Bowls of Cullman County Chili Dinner will take place Monday, Feb. 19, from 4-6:30 p.m. at Cullman First United Methodist Church, 320 Third Ave. SE. It will feature fun, fellowship, chili by Three Guys, grilled cheese sandwiches, handmade pottery bowls, a silent auction and live Southern Gospel music. The special guest emcee will be Nate Williams from WXJC 101.1. Guests can eat in, carry out or drive through. Tickets are $15 each and are available at Cullman Caring for Kids and First United Methodist Church. Proceeds will benefit the Cullman Caring for Kids food bank.

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