Vet to Vet: An Interview with Ehren Tool

So, maybe this will be a new thing I do occasionally, interviews with a veteran artist or writer. That could really work for me. Some background:

I have done a lot of events for Silicon Valley Reads, schools, libraries, and book stores typically, but only one so far at an art gallery, and it was formative. Running through March 21st, the “War and Healing” exhibit at the Euphrat Museum of Art on the campus of De Anza College in Cupertino attempts to do through visual art what I have attempted briefly in writing: explain the war to others. The majority of artists in the exhibit are military veterans, but this isn’t an indulgent show of watercolors from a group therapy session. These are well-trained and experienced artists who happen to be using the war as background for their work.

The quality of the work struck me, and I wanted to know more. So I convinced the At War Blog at the New York Times that the exhibit would make a great piece, and that gave me the excuse to ask noisy questions of interesting people. One of those interesting people was Ehren Tool.

In college, I had a roommate named Thor. No really, that was his given name on his birth certificate. Fortunately, the name fit – he was a 6’2” 220 pound man with a square jaw line and a blond mop. I mention him only as reference – Ehren Tool would make Thor look small. I literally looked up at him at the Euphrat gallery. And yet he makes rather delicate ceramic cups – cucking fups, as he often refers to them – a normal everyday item, decorated with flags and rifles and gas masks. He let me keep a black one with a string of British WWI style masks – thank you.

Tool agreed to do an interview with me; some of it went in the New York Times article, all of it is here.

What did you do in the Marine Corps, and how does that affect your work now?

I was a Marine MP then an Embassy Guard. I joined the Marines thinking 4 years was no big thing. When the Gulf War kicked off I realized how important it is to do the things you believe, not the things you are told. I believe in making my cups.

I joined the Marines with a plan to do 4 years and then join the LAPD. I joined in 1989 during the time of “Glasnost” and “New World Order.” I was with MP Co. Hq. Bn. 1st Mar. Div. [the Military Police Company in the Headquarters Battalion of the 1st Marine Division], and during Desert Shield and Desert Storm we were attached to Task Force Ripper. We did convoy escorts and Enemy Prisoner of War handling.  I didn’t think the Gulf War was really going to kick off. I was and am very naive. I was crushed when the war kicked off. I really thought that the world had evolved.

After the Gulf War I volunteered for embassy duty. I extended for 15 months. I had two hardship posts back to back, Rome for 15 months then Paris for 15 months. 

In my time in the Marines I realized I was not cut out to be a gunslinger. I can’t rely on other people to tell me who my enemies are. I took classes at a community college. I took a drawing class with Ben Sakoguchi. He said all art is political. It was surreal to come back to the States and see that there were action figures, trading cards and video game versions of my war. I wanted to talk about the gap between the stated goal and the outcome. I tried painting and drawing but in a ceramics, with Phil Cornelius, I found the medium I am most comfortable with.

How did you get involved with the Euphrat exhibit? Any particularly cool places you’ve shown work?

Diana Argabrite contacted me to be in the show at the Euphrat Museum.   My two favorite shows were at the Craft and Folkart Museum in Los Angeles and the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft.

I got my first show after undergrad in exchange for building gallery walls. The gallery owner who gave me the show said: “I am going to give you this show even though your work is not relevant to anything that is going on in Los Angeles.” He said I could have the show in the summer or the fall. I asked for the fall and the show opened October 2001. I gave away 1,000 cups decorated with war images and showed letters I sent to the Bush Administration. Someone came up to me and said “Your work is so timely.” I said “Well I am talking about the 1991 Gulf War 10 years ago but it will be about the next war.” I regret that that last bit was true.

Should I describe your current job with the UC system as “kiln bitch,” or is there a better title?

Kiln bitch is accurate but the University calls me a “Senior Laboratory Mechanician” and “Visiting Lecturer.”

When Diane Argabrite [curator and director of the Euphrat Museum of Art] described your work to me, she said your father or grandfather had served in war, and you were upset they never shared with you its horrors, made you learn it for yourself. Is that accurate?

It is true that my dad and my (maternal) grandfather did not share many stories with me until I got back from my war. I understand now. I love my son and his opinion of me is very important to me. I don’t know how to talk about my experiences to him. I don’t want to be idolized or demonized in his eyes.

When “Gulf War II” kicked off I cried. I felt like I had accomplished nothing in the ’91 Gulf War. I feel very protective of the younger generation of vets. I wish I had been able to prevent their wars.

Do you have an intended audience for your work?

I hope that the cups will find a receptive and thoughtful hands. The best stories I have about the cups is when someone with no war experience gives the cup to someone they love with war experience. In a few cases the cups have been a place to start a conversation about the unspeakable.

I read in an interview that you said people can have large expectations of art, but nobody expects anything out of a cup. How much can someone learn from a cup?

I think we live in a time of double speak and and hyperbole. It makes sense to me that (big A) Art would follow suit. I just make cups. Cups don’t have much cultural weight. I depend on the generosity of the viewer to see something more in my cucking fups. I believe in my cups but I don’t have the expectation that anyone, much less everyone, would  agree they are something more than a cup. What can be learned from a cup or a crack in the side walk depends on the viewer.

What do you hope they learn from your cups?

That question is above my paygrade. I want to learn how to make the world a better place.

Can we expect those that have never experienced war to appreciate its horrors, or are you hoping for something else?

I think if it was possible to communicate the horrors of war my grandfather would not be a vet. I hope that people will see that we are all connected.

The societies that arrange young soldiers on either side of any conflict are at least as responsible for the horrors of war as the combatants. I am very sure that people in suits and ties have unleashed more evil in the world than anyone in combat boots.

There is this great quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Richard Notkin is an artist hero of mine and he made a series of heart teapots based on the above quote.

Learn more about Ehren Tool at this great “In The Make” piece.