A Marine Makes Ceramic Cups To Tell Stories of War
By Christine Graf
Ehren Tool remembers the day he told his grandfather, a World War II Marine veteran, that he had enlisted in the Marine Corps. “He said, ‘They are going to take your soul,’” says Tool. “It wasn’t exactly the Kodak moment I envisioned.”
Tool was deployed to Kuwait in 1991 with the Military Police Company Headquarters Battalion First Marine Division. He earned his combat action ribbon during his seven-month tour. While there, he received letters from his father, a Vietnam combat infantry veteran. He advised him to look away from the carnage as much as possible because those images would stay in his head forever. Neither his father nor his grandfather spoke of their war experiences with Tool until he returned from Kuwait. “I was kind of pissed. It was like, what’s up guys? You could have given me a heads-up,” he says with a laugh.
Tool and other Gulf War veterans were welcomed home with parades. “I didn’t want anyone to spit on me, but it just seemed kind of inappropriate,” says Tool. “We didn’t cure some great disease. We killed a bunch of people. I feel like the reception we got from the Gulf War was kind of an apology to the Vietnam veterans.”
Tool did not seek any counseling after returning home. “I don’t know if it was fear or me thinking that somebody else needs it more,” he says. “But as I go on, I realize that maybe I could have used some help.”
Tool understands why so many veterans are reluctant to discuss their war experiences. “Talking about war is rough. To be demonized or idolized for something you did or didn’t do in a context that you can never explain—it’s just so much easier not to talk about it. You never forget what you did.” he says. “Once a person witnesses a war, they are changed forever.”
Tool served five years of active duty before leaving the Marine Corps in 1994. He enrolled in college, where he gravitated toward art. After earning a master of fine arts from the University of California Berkeley, he was hired to work in the university’s ceramics department. One of his art teachers told him that all “art is political.” Tool never forgot those words and decided to use his art to promote conversations about the impact of war. His material of choice was clay. He believes clay is immediate. Once you put your fingerprints on it, you own it. And after it goes through the fire, it lasts 500,000 to a million years. “That made it seem like the appropriate kind of material to me,” Tool says. “Because war is immediate, but the repercussions last forever.”
Tool began making ceramic cups decorated with images of war and violence. He believes his work will encourage veterans to share their war experiences with others. “I think the cup is the right scale to talk about war. From my hand to your hand,” he says.
He has made and given away more than 20,000 cups since 2001. He does not charge for them because he believes veterans and their families have already given enough. In addition to displaying his work at shows, Tool has conducted residencies at museums throughout the world. His cups have been displayed at galleries and museums, including the Smithsonian. He also traveled to Vietnam so that he could make cups from the red clay soil. It was the same red clay that stained the patrol books and maps his father brought home from the war.
Interestingly enough, Tool’s father wasn’t a fan of his son’s cups in the beginning. “He was really upset with me making cups that were so graphic and violent,” says Tool. “He wanted me to get over it and make happy stuff.”
That changed after his father was with him at a show where an Australian Vietnam veteran saw the cups. The cups provided the catalyst for the man to engage in a conversation about the war with Tool’s father. “These 60-year-old dudes were just sobbing and talking about their experiences in Vietnam,” he says. Tool’s father is now super gung-ho and supportive of his son’s work. “Some people I give the cups to almost drop them because they are crying so hard,” he says. “To have your work in the hands of someone who appreciates it—that is the goal of an artist.”
He once made a cup for a woman who had little contact with her father, a Vietnam veteran. The cup included a picture of her father in uniform. After she mailed it to him, the two began talking regularly. A short time later, she got on a plane and went to visit her dad.
Tool realizes that people who do not understand the meaning behind his cups may find them offensive. “If you want to have a conversation about war that is polite and inoffensive, then you don’t want to have a conversation about war,” says Tool. “You don’t want to look at what they had to look at. You don’t want to feel what they feel. I get that. In the end, they are just cups. They hold water. How they are received is out of my control. I don’t think anything I do is going to change the world, but nothing in the world releases me from my obligation to try.”
Making cups has helped Tool as he travels his own journey of healing. “I always resisted the idea of cups as therapy, but once I cleared 13,000, I realized I had crossed the line between productive and obsessive,” he says with a laugh. “There’s some need in me that makes me want to do it. It feels like such a nothing little gesture in the face of everything that is going on in the world, but I don’t know what else to do sincerely.”
And so his work continues. One cup at a time.