Local woodturner rallies artists for the 15th annual Empty Bowl | TheUnion.com

Local woodturner rallies artists for the 15th annual Empty Bowl


“Feeling the wood, smelling the wood, each wood has its own distinctive smell,” explained woodturner Karl Miller. “Most of my life, I was a therapist. I would sit in a chair and listen to people — for over 30 years. It was very sedentary, not very sensory. When I retired, I wanted to do something artistic. I wanted to do something hands on. That’s what got me into woodturning.”

After moving to Grass Valley from Menlo Park in 2009 with his wife Suzie, Miller found woodturning a natural fit. Inspired to master the craft, Miller flew out to Provo, Utah, which he described as the “mecca of woodturning.” A five-day, hands-on workshop gave Miller the footing to stand on. Upon returning to Grass Valley, he found a woodturner mentor, Don Lawson, through Twin Cities Church and joined the Gold Country Woodturners, a local group of craftsmen and craftswomen who turn bowls, sculpt, and make just about anything and everything out of wood.

Twin Cities Church also introduced Miller and his wife to Hospitality House, the community’s leading homeless services provider for all of Nevada County. For years, the couple helped prepare and serve lunches for those without homes, but Miller found another way to give back: his art.

While attending the 2016 Empty Bowl benefit for Hospitality House at Peace Lutheran Church, Miller admired the many bowls donated by local artists. However, as a woodcraftsman, he immediately noticed all the bowls were ceramic. Where was the wood?

“I found the woman who was organizing the bowls and I asked if they might like to have wooden bowls,” recalled Miller. The answer was a resounding yes and for the last five years, Miller and fellow Gold Country Woodturners have been turning bowls for Empty Bowl.

Miller is the Gold Country Woodturners bowl coordinator and advocate for Empty Bowl. This year, the woodturners have collectively turned 110 bowls, all of which are scattered across seven featured Empty Bowl restaurants: Sopa Thai Cuisine, Tofanelli’s Gold Country Bistro, Lola at The National Exchange Hotel, Golden Gate Saloon at The Holbrooke Hotel, fudenjüce, Heartwood Eatery, and Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co.

“Empty Bowl is to serve our community —to help people who are food and housing challenged,” said Miller. “We wanted to do something big in that area.”

To make just one wooden bowl for Empty Bowl, the start to finish journey can take months. After cutting blanks in the forest (individual rounds of wood that will later become bowls), Miller explained the wood needs to dry out before it can be turned on a lathe. Woodturners do what they can to slow the drying down so the wood doesn’t crack into firewood and the greener the wood, the longer the waiting.

“I like to cut wet wood, seal it, and let it dry,” explained Miller. “I usually let my wood dry out two to three months. Then for the actual cutting of the bowl, an 8-inch bowl takes four hours. It can be longer than that. It could be an all-day process. If there are any imperfections, it extends the time.”

Miller and many fellow Gold Country Woodturners are perfectionists; every bowl donated to Empty Bowl is made with craft precision and the utmost of care. Woodturners range from novice to pro. The fastest known woodturner at Gold Country Woodturners, Bill Juhl, can crank out a black oak bowl in just 20 minutes, plus the time needed for sanding and finishing, but for most, two to four hours is the average time to donate just one bowl for Empty Bowl.

“Empty Bowl is one of the main ways we like to get people involved with the Gold Country Woodturners – turning bowls and giving back,” explained Miller. The club not only supports Empty Bowl annually — they support local schools by teaching the trade to students at no cost. They also share their knowledge with one another, bring in world-renown woodturners to lead demonstrations, and they’ve gone above and beyond for guests of Hospitality House, too. When one past guest shared his passion for woodturning, the club invited him into their circle with open arms.

“He came a few times,” recalled Miller. “He had done it a few times when he was younger. Hooking up with him was great; he was just so appreciative of being invited to come. We met at the Elks Lodge, we had dinner, and he came to the demo. He said, ‘I so miss this.’ He just enjoyed it. He had lost his job, but he ended up finding housing.”

Empty Bowl is an opportunity for the community to come together to help those in need. Participants receive a souvenir bowl, made with love by artists like Miller, which serves as an ongoing reminder of what a bowl of sustenance truly means when one is hungry and without a home.

“Empty bowls … they may just be bowls, but it shows people what can be done.”

Tickets to the 15th annual Empty Bowl are on sale now. All of the proceeds from Empty Bowl support Hospitality House’s emergency shelter operations and related services. Learn more and get tickets at hhshelter.org. Tickets subject to sellout.

Ashley Quadros is a local writer and the development director at Hospitality House. She can be reached for comment at aquadros@hhshelter.org

Karl Miller turning a bowl on a lathe.
Photo courtesy of Karl Miller

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