Courtney Bergey of Lanesboro shows some of her completed ceramic pieces next to a kiln also filled with some of her creations. Bergey has several creative spaces and this work area in the back of The Old Bank Art Gallery in Whalan is one of her favorites.  MELISSA VANDER PLAS/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Courtney Bergey of Lanesboro shows some of her completed ceramic pieces next to a kiln also filled with some of her creations. Bergey has several creative spaces and this work area in the back of The Old Bank Art Gallery in Whalan is one of her favorites. MELISSA VANDER PLAS/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
"Food, art and community - the trifecta of things that are most important to me," said Courtney Bergey of Lanesboro regarding the upcoming "Fill More Bowls" event in Harmony. The third annual Empty Bowls fundraiser is expanding throughout the county this year, celebrating the work of local potters and ceramic artists while raising funds for the Fillmore County Food Shelves.

Set for Sunday, Nov. 10, at the Harmony Community Center, a simple meal of soup, homemade bread and beverages will be served from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. One may purchase a hand-made bowl for $20 and fill it with one of four kinds of soup to enjoy while sharing fellowship with neighbors and friends.

"Eating together is something to be cherished," Bergey added. "Empty Bowls brings people together through food and art. There is something to be said for supporting our local food shelves while enjoying good soup from a handmade bowl with a group of people."

Bergey also explained that Fillmore County is one of the more economically depressed counties in the state. "If we are going to celebrate food and art, let's do it in a way that can help," she added.

The volunteer

While a student at Luther College, Bergey became involved in the Empty Bowls event held there each year.

While working in the studio her senior year, she remembers how exciting it was to see local potters come into the campus art studio to make the bowls to serve the soup in. "It was cool to be there," she said. "I learned about their professional life and saw their different styles."

She volunteered to help set up for the event and even donated a few bowls.

Last year, after attending the Empty Bowls lunch in Harmony, Bergey approached one of the volunteers and asked how she could be involved.

"I'll be donating a few bowls and am helping promote it as best I can," she added.

And one is sure to see her at the Empty Bowls event, enjoying the soup and appreciating the bowls donated by her fellow artisans as well.

"Eating together with handmade art materials in a community that cares for itself is not only inspiring, it's invigorating," Bergey said.

The artist

Bergey graduated from Fillmore Central High School and attended Luther College where she majored in art. She was interested in art history and it really wasn't until her final semester of college that she found a passion for ceramics.

"I fell in love with the medium," she said and explained that she loves that she can create art that can be used in one's everyday life.

She learned quickly that art is just as much about the process as it is about the end result. "When I put something on the wheel or take a lump of clay into my hands, the process takes me where it's supposed to go. It's about finding the step that works," Bergey said. "And, sometimes, it's the mistake that makes it work."

And when she is feeling uninspired, Bergey admits that it may be as simple as picking up a lump of clay and playing with it to break through the barriers. "To get something done, you just have to start working with it," she said.

During her final semester in college, Bergey created a wall installation as her senior project that features shallow bowls with melted marbles in the bottoms. The piece was purchased and is now hanging in a Decorah church.

"That gave me a lot more confidence as an artist," Bergey said about selling her piece.

During college, she had also interned with the Lanesboro Arts Center and was hired there following her graduation in May of 2012. She joined the staff as a program associate and assistant director of capital campaigning. She joked that she calls herself the "executive multi-tool."

"I do a lot of grant writing, communication with our partners and membership support as well as develop some of the programming," she added.

Another of her priorities within the arts center is to work with her fellow staff members to make art more accessible throughout the Lanesboro community. "There are a lot of parts of that under one campaign," Bergey explained.

Her co-workers also encouraged her to apply for an emerging artist grant from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council, which she was granted in March. "The project is inspired by my family farmland and the earth," she explained.

"I've been learning so much in the past year and a half," Bergey said. "I am so grateful, so fortunate to live in a state that appreciates and supports the artists."

Bergey added, as a visual artist, she kept seeing different, raw, organic aspects of the rural agriculture and nature coming through in her work. "I love the straight lines of a cornfield, so I may try and incorporate that into a mug or bowl or something," she stated.

Her grant will fund the work she will create for a show on Feb. 22 at the Lanesboro Art Center. While those items are currently in the development phase, the pieces will be connected to the agricultural aspects of the land - showcasing how one can incorporate and blend agriculture and nature into art.

"There will be individual forms, a wall installation and decorative and functional forms," Bergey said.

Receiving the grant has validated her career as an artist, Bergey explained. "It has made me feel more accountable as an artist and has made me a lot more mindful of my experiences. How can I turn something I see or experience into an art form?"

She added that implementing agriculture and nature into her art has encouraged conversations about her work with her dad, brothers and grandfather. That commonality has helped them understand her personal visions and creativity.

Some of the newest additions to her collection are miniature ceramic spoons. She was inspired during a trip to Amsterdam where she was given a tiny spoon to use in her coffee. She anticipates making matching cup and spoon sets as well as some bowls that may have a spoon attached in some way. The smile on her face and the glint in her eye indicated she has a mind full of ideas that had yet to be created.

Bergey said she enjoys making functional items and makes no apologies for the lack of matching dishes in her own apartment. "There is a great deal of satisfaction from serving food to a guest in a bowl or mug or plate that you created," she said. "It's about making an everyday experience, like eating breakfast or sipping a cup of coffee, a more enjoyable and pleasing experience."

She also creates a bond to those who may be using the items she created. Bergey explained, "You feel a connection to them as you see them take a sip from a mug you made or lift a spoon to their lips from a bowl you created with your own hands."

The educator

Bergey loves to share her knowledge and skill with ceramics through community education programs and art classes.

"Many people are intimidated by art and how it fits into life," she said. "I think ceramics is more accessible."

While living in Decorah, Bergey taught art classes there and has missed doing so since moving to Lanesboro. She started an after school art program at Fillmore Central for the younger children. "It's so refreshing to see the pure art of children," she added. "They don't know what's 'right' or 'wrong' yet."

Bergey will be working with the Fillmore Central art class in the coming months and working with students on handbuilding and forming clay. "This allows more room for good mistakes," she explained. "Wheel throwing is fun, but this allows students to have more control of the clay."

In addition to her ceramics, Bergey enjoys needle felting and creates finger puppets, which she ties into her educational outreach programs.

Creative spaces

While Bergey does not have a studio all her own, she has many creative spaces. She had purchased a kiln from her art professor and had thought she would create a studio on her parents' farm. However, she has located the kiln in the back of The Old Bank Gallery in Whalan and creates some of her work there. However, she also has a "creative corner" in her apartment in Lanesboro and has worked in others' studios as well.

"As a young artist, living in a community of artists, working other spaces and drawing on others' expertise is really what I am enjoying right now," Bergey said. "You have to be open minded to something you may not have experienced before."

Her long-term dream is to be able to bring art to people and to build a community through art, Bergey explained. While that may happen through a concerted effort like the Empty Bowls event coming up in November, or by surprise through an accidental encounter with a mural or painting on a wall, art can be an invigorating aspect of one's life.

As she continues to develop as an artist, one can be sure that Bergey will continue to integrate her favorite things into her process: that wonderful trifecta of food, art and community.