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An Artist’s Journey from Food Insecurity to Helping Others

Missouri Wilkinson's art supports Empty Bowls Houston.

Missouri Wilkinson (Photography by Alex Rosa)

There was a time when Missouri Wilkinson didn’t know if they would have an empty bowl on their dining table. They recall growing up food-insecure and relying on government-assisted funding and their family’s church’s generosity in order to put food on the table.

Today, at 28 years old, Missouri (who uses both she and they pronouns) reflects on their past humbly, realizing a lot has changed. Today, through the gift of their artwork, they are able to put food on the table as well as secure meals for people they will never meet.

This year will be Missouri’s first time participating in the annual Empty Bowls Houston charity event benefiting Houston Food Bank. The annual fundraiser is a collaboration between the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and Houston-area ceramicists, woodturners, and artists working in all media.

Traditionally the event receives creative donations of over 1,500 one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted bowls made by local artists. Most items are made available for $25 per bowl. With 100 percent of the proceeds going to Houston Food Bank, each bowl sold is able to provide 75 meals for those affected by food insecurity throughout the city. Every dollar donated to Houston Food Bank generates three meals.

Built tough, but forged even stronger. Missouri was born in Texas City but spent most of their childhood growing up in Galveston. They recall food always being a concern for their family. To put it simply, they didn’t have a lot. Reliant upon various government assistance programs, their family rarely had fresh food on the table. “I remember saying once, why don’t we have real milk? I don’t want this weird, watery powdered milk and I’m sick of Tang. I wanted different or better snacks. I was a kid. I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize why things were the way they were until a certain point, one day in middle school.”

Throughout elementary school and into middle school, Missouri received school lunches for free, based on their family’s income level. That was until the family received an increase in household income. This increase helped make certain ends meet but didn’t make the family food-secure. However, numbers are numbers, and Missouri was still cut off from the food-assistance program in school.

“They told me no. The people in the cafeteria that have known me and my situation had to tell me no. They could not give me food anymore. Not only was I food-insecure, I was emotionally insecure. I didn’t know what to think or feel knowing I wouldn’t have food in front of me on a regular basis. It was a sudden awakening of realizing you’re different.”

This feeling of vulnerability is one that they have carried with them into adulthood, but not in a negative way. They use their experience as a reminder to appreciate what they have and help others along the way.

“Food plays a big part in my life. I’m a server at JUN, and most of my friends love food or create food for others. We enjoy eating together and talking over meals. It’s become a big part of my life and even in my art, crafting vessels with my hands.”

Empty Bowls Houston returns for its 18th year.

Bowls and vessels were a natural draw for Missouri’s artistic talent, and they’ve always been drawn to the beauty of a vessel being used for something productive—or just sitting empty while still maintaining its beauty.

“Growing up, we had very few physical possessions. I used to put a lot of value on the items that we did have. I’ve worked in beautiful restaurants with beautiful things and enjoy watching people’s experiences. I don’t have access to those experiences, so I try and create other experiences with my art.”

With every vessel crafted, Missouri is also learning more about their personal growth as their hands run through the clay and the work takes its final form. As a member of the LGBTQ community and identifying as nonbinary, Missouri is becoming a vessel of hope through their community service.

Missouri attended Texas A&M University at Galveston, where they studied marine science. They’ve now traded wading through Gulf waters for a sea of rich artistic opportunities in Houston.

Having lived in the city for only three years, Missouri is proud to call Houston home. Although it seemed like an endless sprawl of concrete and lights at first, Missouri has found a tight-knit community and circle of friends who love both the arts and the artists who make the city so vibrant. Michelle Heinesen has become Missouri’s mentor who has encouraged them to grow as an artist—and get involved with the annual Empty Bowls charity event.

“This makes me very emotional,”  Missouri says. “My work is translating into actual food for someone, so it’s not just an artistic vessel. The pieces I am donating are two of my very favorites. I made them when I first started making pottery, but have never had anywhere for them to go. But look, they had a beautiful destiny and can actually help my community.

“Going from a child feeling helpless to someone who is now being helpful is incredible. I don’t want anyone to be told ‘No, you cannot eat.’”


What: 18th annual Empty Bowls Houston Benefitting Houston Food Bank
When: Saturday, May 11, 2024, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main St.
Info: EmptyBowlsHouston.org

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