Ehren Tool

Artist/Potter, Berkeley // October 2011
I decorate cups with images of war and violence. The use of these icons reveals how abstract war is for most of our culture— so abstract in fact, that somehow it’s okay to use images of war as toys.

We visited Ehren at his Berkeley home, in the basement studio space that he shares with his wife and mother-in-law, who are also potters. Before letting us run loose in his workspace he took us on a tour of the dense and extravagant garden that his mother-in-law has cultivated, where I saw plump kiwi fruit hanging off of vines and koi fish in the pond, prompting me to let out child-like yelps of delight. After the garden tour we went up to the house, and Ehren let us snoop around his equally densely and extravagantly decorated home while he made coffee. With our caffeine fixes taken care of, we headed down to Ehren’s studio. Despite how packed the space is, Ehren moves around with ease and seems to know where everything is at any given moment. He has no trouble multi-tasking, and while he threw clay on his potter’s wheel we chatted about politics, war, family and the cups he makes. Talking about war with someone who has been to war is a strange thing. I felt more cautious asking questions. I was hyper aware of the fact that to someone like me, war-time realities are at best, foggy second-hand sound bites that are too often attached to polarized points of view. It also seemed hard for Ehren to talk about his personal experiences and general philosophies concerning war. It was difficult for him to find the right words, and articulate them, and he often cut off his own sentences or let them trail off into silence. But when we talked about war within the context of his art practice and the cups he makes, the conversation got a lot easier for both of us. No doubt about it, the cups are catalysts— enabling Ehren to construct and work out war-related narratives, and then invite other’s into the conversation. The conversation is often difficult territory, but the cups offer a starting point that feels more accessible and comfortable to most people. It’s a funny twist in timing that I just finished re-reading Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried, a work of fiction about the American war in Vietnam. At one point in the book, O’Brien states, By telling stories, you objectify your own experience…You pin down certain truths. You make up others…you carry it forward to clarify and explain. This is what I think Ehren is doing with his cups— he is essentially telling ‘war stories’ that make the abstract more real, and he’s pushing these stories forward, keeping them alive, and with honesty and guts, he’s asking all of us to talk about what is at the heart of his work: What is the nature of war, and how does it effect us?

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I have an aversion to this question. The gap between the stated goal and the outcome is often too vast. I don’t trust the answer. I hope I do good. I want to make good work. Forgive me, but I’m not sure I can answer your question. There was a time when I had an answer. When I was co-captain of my high school football team, I had an answer. When I was #1 graduate of my military police class, I had an answer. When I deployed to the 1991 (ancient history) Gulf War, I had an answer. When I volunteered to extend my time in the Marine Corps, I had an answer. When I went to college, I had an answer. When I applied to graduate school, I had an answer. When I was asked to speak at my MFA graduation, I had an answer. When I apply for grants, I have an answer. Honestly, I don’t know what I do. These days at my best and most honest, I just love my family (the human family) and make “cucking fups.” At my day job, at my best, I try and help the students contribute to the archeological record. But I understand that when most people ask that question they mean how do you make your money. My answer depends on the people and the setting. In an art setting with art types I say, “I make cups.” In most other settings I say, “I am the Kiln Bitch (Senior Laboratory Mechanician) and sometimes teach at UC Berkeley.”

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
Yes. I am the Kiln Bitch (Senior Laboratory Mechanician) and sometimes teach at UC Berkeley. I get to work with clay and help young, hopeful, creative types achieve their goals to the best of my abilities. It is also a paycheck, medical and dental insurance for my family and myself.

What mediums do you work with?
Mostly clay but I do use photoshop, a laser engraver, and some printing methods.

How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I decorate cups with images of war and violence. Many of the images are things taken from daily life of civilian and military cultures. The images are often surreal to me and strike me as odd. Seeing the gasmask I wore, when I thought the air was poison in Kuwait, as a toy for kids age 6 and up. Seeing the flag a mother is given when her son is buried as a prop in a porno. The use of these icons reveals how abstract war is for most of our culture— so abstract in fact, that somehow it’s okay to use images of war as toys. A friend of mine was telling me a story of a 13-year-old boy who was telling him about the Vietnam war. The kid believed the US had won, like in the video game. There are winners and losers in the game. There are only losers in war.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’m currently reading whatever my 7-year-old son wants to read. I read to him for 20 minutes before bed on most nights. It is really strange to read children’s books with my son. There are a lot of models of the world and reality presented in children’s books. I want my son to be proud of me but I don’t want him to follow me into the Marine Corps. There are many ways to “be a man,” to serve your country, to be brave, to challenge yourself, and do good and noble things without a sword. I don’t want my son to be a dragon slayer. Unless it is in the way of Abraham Lincoln— “I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend.”
I listen to KALX, KCRW, and Democracy Now! When I am feeling masochistic I watch FAUX (Fox) News, it hurts.
I read a lot of news online, going from link to link. I am often surprised how difficult it can be to find out the latest news in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
Time and money are the biggest challenges to making my cucking fups. I have a studio in the basement. I work my 40 hours, come home, play with the family, have dinner, give my son a bath, read to him, put him to bed, and then go to the basement and work. I also work on my stuff on the weekends. I certainly have some regrets in life, but making my “cucking fups” isn’t one of them.
I don’t navigate the art world. I make my work and say yes to most opportunities I am given and try hard to make those people happy that gave me a chance. I really feel lucky and it’s a little surreal how supportive and generous people have been. I am so grateful to have shows on the horizon to work towards.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
It is really wonderful to have an art making space where I can store piles and piles of images, stamps, and molds all at arms reach. Having a place to work in allows me to add layers and layers of meaning to the cups. My studio is not huge but it works. I have to make it work in stages— throwing clay, decorating with stamps, decorating with decals, etc. I have to re-arrange the studio each time.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has lead to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I have been seriously making cups and giving them away since 2001, before 9/11. I had a show that opened the month after 9/11 and at that show a man said how timely my work was. I laughed and said it was really about the 1991 Gulf War, but I guess it’s about the next war also. I guess my work started as autobiographical and now is also about these new wars and the veterans that come out of them.

Also, my son was born after I started making cups. When I began talking about war, it was as a veteran. Going to war, I took my chances, I survived, but others did not— so be it. But now everyone is someone’s child to me. Images of the war dead are all children, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters now. It is harder to look at the images I use now. Making my work feels more necessary for me.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am excited about making some cups for people who have/had family in the military. I know those cups will mean something to the people who have them. I am also excited about mailing cups to a friend in New York to pass out at Occupy Wall Street. I am just really excited about making the next “cucking fup.”

What are you most proud of?
My family. They are amazing. I wouldn’t be here without them.

What do you want your work to do?
If I get to make a wish, it’s to create world peace. That was hard to type because I was laughing so hard. I have had issues with the stated goal and the outcome. I just make cups. If the cups become something more, that is great and completely out of my control. There is something in the hand-to-hand aspect of my work though— these cups that I make with my hands are going out into the world into other people’s hands, and hopefully the imagery and insignia I use create powerful impressions.

What advice has influenced you?
Ben Sakoguchi: “All art is political.” I hope my work is never suitable to be shown in a bank lobby.

Phil Cornelius: “Anybody can take a good idea and work with it for years. It takes a special kind of person to take a bad idea and work with it for years.” I am that special kind of person.

Ken Price: “Make work, don’t think too much, just make work. Then stop and look at what you have made, maybe with someone whose opinion you respect. Look at the work and get rid of everything that is not yours. If you are successful you will create your own idiom.” I am trying.

How will you know when you have arrived?
When they put my corpse in the furnace.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I’m in two group shows— The exhibit at EFA Project Space in New York just ended actually. But the other show, Hey! Modern Art et Pop Culture at Halle Saint Pierre in Paris, France is still up and will run through March 4, 2012.
I’ll be in a few other group shows in the spring. There are no dates yet, but two will be in Scotland, two in Berkeley, and one in Alabama.
I will also have a solo show in L.A. at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, that opens on May 26th, 2012.

To see more of Ehren’s work:

He also has work up at Marcia Donahue’s Gallery and Garden, which is open Sundays from 1pm-5pm, and is located at 3017 Wheeler Street, Berkeley, CA 94705

  • Pati Vail Losh

    I saw Ehren Tool & his amazing cups on WGVU. He woke me from my emotional slumber from PTSD. He made several statements that hit me hard & has made me want to live life again with purpose. He put things so simply and straightforward. He inspired me to put into action my lifelong dream of making a living with my art. Thank you, Ehren, for helping me heal!!

  • Cheri Uno

    I met Ehren at PCC. We made a trip together to Las Vegas to the Ceramics Conference! I was just thinking about him a few days ago and wondered where he is now! While sick with a cold today I flipped channels. I found Craft In America and there he was with his cups! I love them. Love his video! I saw he had a show in LA 2012 – wish I could see something current. I didn’t see much on his name with a google search. Wondered does he have a website?