" A cup does not demand you pay attention to it. It is a small hand-to-hand gesture. That is the scale I am comfortable with. Small scale is where I think there can be real communication. The best cups I have made are cups that became a touchstone for a Vet or someone close to them to talk about unspeakable things." -Ehren Tool
Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of the 2015 AHN Awards to Ehren Tool, an artist and military veteran based in Berkeley, CA. Since 2001, Ehren has created over 16,000 ceramic cups decorated with war-related imagery. The diligent creation of these cups has not only been a way of processing the challenges of his military experiences, but also the cups themselves become touchstones for deep conversation about the nature of war and peace. Ehren does not sell the cups, but rather gives them away, allowing them to move out into the world freely, where they can spark further dialogue and conversation.
Arts & Healing Network is deeply inspired by Ehren's clarity of vision, consistent practice, creative generosity, and his talent in making objects that raise awareness about the tragedies of war and the possibilities for peace.
To learn more about Ehren Tool and his powerful work, please click here. You could also read this article by Richard Whittaker on Conversations.org, and find an interview with Ehren Tool on In the Make.
Below is an interview with Ehren Tool by Arts & Healing Network Director Mary Daniel Hobson from May 2015.
Mary Daniel Hobson: How did you get started making cups?
Ehren Tool: When I got out of the Marine Corps I went to a community college using the GI Bill. My plan was to take classes until I found something I believed in doing. I started with drawing and painting and then found clay. Clay seemed to me to be the proper material to talk about war. Clay is very immediate and malleable, but once it is fired it will last hundreds of thousands of years. Similarly war is immediate and very fluid, but the results have lasting consequences.
I went to school for Art. I did not apprentice under a potter (I maybe should have). Clay and cups were my reaction to all of the rhetoric and theory of Art. Peace is the only adequate war memorial. I still want to talk about war and the costs and consequences. A cup does not demand you pay attention to it. It is a small hand-to-hand gesture. That is the scale I am comfortable with. Small scale is where I think there can be real communication. The best cups I have made are cups that became a touchstone for a Vet or someone close to them to talk about unspeakable things. The cups are just cups until someone sees something in them and shares a conversation with someone else.
Mary Daniel: How many cups have you made to date, over how many years?
Ehren: I have made and given away about 16,000 cups since 2001.
Mary Daniel: Why cups?
Ehren: Cups for me are the correct scale to talk about war. Hand-to-hand. Stalin said "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic." I think that is garbage. One million dead is an incalculable tragedy. I think the cups have become my own little army. They infiltrate other people's lives and start conversations that might otherwise not happen.
In some creation stories clay is brought to life. I think when folks take my cups, use them, and share their stories the cups become more than just cups. The power of the cups relies on the generosity of people to interact and consider the cups.
Mary Daniel: Please tell me a little about the imagery you add to the cups.
Ehren: All of the cups are war related, in my head. I have made many cups for Veterans and their families. Some cups are decorated with insignia I borrow from Vets. Some of the cups are decorated with molds of toy soldiers. The cups are decorated with military images and civilian images -- these strange places military and civilian cultures intersect.
Mary Daniel: The act of giving them away (rather than selling them) is such a powerful statement of generosity. Why did you decide to give them, rather than sell them?
Ehren: As an artist/potter, my big goal is to get the work in the hands of people who appreciate the work. The people who appreciate the cups the most seem to be the folks I am least excited about taking money from. Taking money from widows, wives, or life long anti-war activists seems a strange idea to me.
Mary Daniel: What kinds of places and with what communities have you shared your cups?
Ehren: I usually end up showing at museums and not-for-profit spaces. Commercial galleries aren't interested in giving things away. More recently I have been making work in communities and showing the work and then letting people take their own cup. I mostly end up working with Vets, their families, and anti-war folks. I think a lot of the time it is not Vets, but their families, that get the most from the cups. The cups can be a starting point to start a conversation about really hard stuff.
I have also done a little work with inner city folks. It is ironic to me that we say over and over we are fighting for freedom and democracy when we have so many people in prison and have so many Americans in poverty.
Mary Daniel: What do you hope the impact of this work will be?
Ehren: I am reluctant to expect too much from the cups. When I joined the Marine Corps I had great hope for what I, and America, would do to make the world a better place. The gap between the stated goal and the outcome was vast and soul crushing. I just make cups. I hope that the cups can be places for people to have real conversations about war. For myself I find it really hard to speak directly about my experiences. To be demonized or idolized for something I did in a context I can't express is really hard. I think for many Vets it is easier just to keep silent. Conversations about good and evil are fine until you recognize the evil inside of you.
Mary Daniel: Why do you think art can be a catalyst for healing and transformation?
Ehren: I am not sure what healing and transformation my little cups could achieve. I don't mean to sound harsh. I don't think anything I do is going to change the world. I also think there is nothing in the world that releases me from obligation to try. I think we should all do what we can sincerely. Making cups is a pretty small gesture in the face of all that is going wrong today. I don't know what else I could do.
Mary Daniel: What excites you most about your work right now?
Ehren: The most fun I am having is when I get invited to make cups with a community. It is so much more rewarding to make the cups with the folks that the cups are for.
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