Tom Durkin
Special to The Union

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February 27, 2014
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Creating pottery for Empty Bowls a Hotchkiss tradition

Donating bowls to the Hospitality House homeless shelter’s annual Empty Bowl soup fundraiser has been a tradition for Richard Hotchkiss since … well … the beginning of the community meal eight years ago.

This year, once again, the Empty Bowl fundraiser will serve up nutritious soups in unique, handcrafted art bowls you can take home — maybe one made by Hotchkiss himself.

When asked why he’s done it since day one, Hotchkiss just smiled and said, “It seemed like a good idea at the time” as he measured a traditional ingredient, almond ashes, into his personal blend of ceramic glaze.

“I’m a connoisseur of glazes,” he said, sounding like somebody who definitely is. “Sometimes, I don’t even measure.”

Hotchkiss, who holds a Ph.D. in creative arts from the University of Washington, Pullman, also makes his own clay in a traditional way.

But when he goes to fire his ceramics, he gets down old-school.

Hotchkiss fires the 100-plus bowls he donates each year in his anagama kiln. It’s an almost 40-foot “cave kiln.” Invented in China, the time-tested kiln found its way to Japan via Korea in the fifth century and has been in use by pottery purists ever since.

Bowls fired in an anagama kiln come out with a distinctive but unpredictable glaze, a result of the intense alchemy of flame, ash and the minerals in the clay forming a natural glaze.

“The impurities in the ash and clay create little freckles,” Hotchkiss explained, which gives each piece a unique pattern.

Firing bowls in an anagama kiln is a 24/7 labor of love. It takes 10 cords of fast-burning soft wood and seven days of stoking the fire around the clock to finish the bowls, Hotchkiss said.

He invites fellow potters to fire their own bowls (there’s plenty of room in the long kiln) and help him keep the fires burning.

Over the decades, Hotchkiss has been a university professor from Washington State, to UC Davis, to Sacramento State, to Sierra College. All that time, he has managed to hold onto his family’s organic raspberry farm and ceramics studio just outside of Grass Valley.

His studio itself can best be described as rustic but functional. For many well-known area potters, it is sort of a mecca. Prolific Empty Bowl potters Chic Lotz and Yvon Dockter have studied with Hotchkiss.

What seemed like “a good idea at the time” is still a good idea, he said.

Unfortunately, Hotchkiss won’t be able to attend this year’s Empty Bowl event on March 8 because he’s coaching the Chico State track team. But his bowls will be there.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at

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The Union Updated Feb 27, 2014 12:06AM Published Feb 27, 2014 10:33PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.