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Jo Dortch & the Empty Bowls Project

Last year, local residents glazed hundreds of bowls in preparation for the Empty Bowls Project, a charity event organized by Michael Terra of Paducah. During the event, patrons purchased $15 tickets and filled handmade bowls with food donated from local restaurants. All proceeds benefited the Paducah Community Kitchen. Now, as the second annual Empty Bowls approaches, WKMS’ Casey Northcutt takes a look at one woman who has spent the past year glazing bowls for the project, and in doing so, she has nourished her own soul.

In a room cluttered with bottles and brushes, a woman stares at a small, clay bowl. The bowl has three legs protruding from its base that give it the appearance of a cauldron. Picking up a paintbrush, Jo Ann, or Jo, Dortch decides it needs a pair of pants.

Jo: “And each bowl tells you what to do with it by its shape and whatever its structure is. You just start listening to the bowl and it will tell you.”

Casey: “So what does this bowl tell you?”

Jo: “That it’s a pair of overalls.”

For the past year, Dortch has shown up about once a week at Michael Terra’s ceramic studio, Terra Cottage, in Paducah. She’s spent that time in self-imposed art therapy, shaking up bottles of glaze and applying coats to clay pottery used in the Empty Bowls’ Project. Terra says he has seen many people find emotional calm in the act of transforming a piece of clay.

“It’s very quiet. It doesn’t have any preconceived need in what it’s going to be. It’s very forgiving, and it allows, and so I think that as people take a breath and allow that to unfold, it’s a pretty—for lack of a better word—spiritual moment.”

For Dortch, glazing has brought her back from emotional and mental collapse.

The 69 year-old woman first walked through Terra Cottage’s door in December 2010 to paint a piece for Empty Bowls. At the time, she suffered from emotional and physical exhaustion that quickly approached a breaking point. The day after Christmas that year, she suffered a major breakdown.

“I just sat there. I mean, I couldn’t think, and I couldn’t react to things.”

Dortch says after years of constant care giving, she snapped. She had been experiencing family ordeals that began in 1989, when her father died and she quit her job to take care of her elderly mother. Then in the past 11 years, doctors diagnosed her husband with diverticulitis and later, an aortic aneurysm and esophageal cancer. Her brother and 5 year-old granddaughter also developed cancer, and through it all, Dortch helped where she could. But eventually, she collapsed. Her daughter, Terri Clark, grew alarmed.

“She just got to give up more and more of herself until the point where there wasn’t anything left for her. And then it all escalated after to the point of her not functioning at all and being hospitalized several times and passing out. You couldn’t trust her to go anywhere or do anything. And, they couldn’t find any physical reasons. It turned out that it was just all stress and depression.”

Yet after the 2010 Christmas season, the innately creative Dortch continued to glaze at Terra Cottage. Michael Terra says she visited several times before he invited her to come weekly. He realized it had started to change her.

Dortch first glazed because she felt a responsibility to help the hungry in Paducah, but as she continued, she realized her stress had started to slip away. She had found a method of self-expression she could perform in a quiet space where no one would need her.

Back in the ceramic studio, Dortch paints overall straps that run over the lip of her bowl. She smiles as she describes the kindness Michael Terra and his family have shown her over the past year. Terra Cottage has become something of a sanctuary.

Casey: “So do you have a favorite bowl that you’ve glazed?”

Jo: “I don’t think that way. I think of doing artwork is like you just evolve from one into another. I try to be mindful of just the present and what’s going on in the present because I’m just a conduit for what’s going on here. I don’t take credit for it. I just sort of plug in and try to really see and feel what’s happening, and the next time, maybe you’ve learned something from the last time.”

Today, Dortch’s granddaughter, brother and husband live cancer-free, and therefore, so does she. After her breakdown, Dortch has learned to delegate responsibility, which now eases her everyday burdens. But, pottery gives her access to creative expression.

It gives her an activity to perform for herself—well, for herself and for hungry people in Paducah.

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