It was 1988 in Los Angeles. Ehren Tool was 18 and wanted to do something good, to help people. He hadn’t had much luck in school — “I flunked out of fourth grade” — so, he figured he’d try out another career path that didn’t require straight As, but did require a dedication to doing what was right. He would become a police officer.
To enroll in the police academy in L.A., he had to be 21, so instead, he enlisted in the Marine Corps to become a military police officer. “I joined the Marine Corps with all kinds of good and noble intentions,” says Tool.
In 1991, Tool was deployed to the Gulf War, first to Saudi Arabia, then into Kuwait. As a field military police officer with First Marine Division as part of Task Force Ripper, he worked as a convoy escort and handler for enemy prisoners of war. “I was super gung ho and a real believer that we were the good guys,” he says. But a few months into his seven-month deployment, he realized it wasn’t that simple.
“We were handling one Iraqi soldier, and he said, ‘Baghdad, Baghdad, Baghdad,’ and he put his hand at his shoulder, hand at his hip, hand at his knee. Then, I said out loud, ‘Oh, he has three kids in Baghdad.’”
The Marine next to Tool told the man, “Hiroshima, Nagasaki — all gone,” motioning that his family had been killed, even though they didn’t know if it was true. The Iraqi soldier dropped to the ground, sobbing.
“It really undermined the idea that we had of the people we were fighting — that they hate freedom, that they’re evil, that they hate us,” says Tool. “This guy was just concerned about his three kids in Baghdad. It really messed with me. I decided I didn’t want to be a gunslinger anymore.”
Although Tool went on to work as a Marine Security Guard in Rome and Paris, protecting lines of communication between the U.S and Italy and France, he never went back into combat.
Today, Tool works as the ceramics studio manager in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley.
And, in his off-time, he creates brutal-looking clay stoneware cups that he decorates with images about war — cups that he hopes will start honest conversations about war and the conflicted, complicated feelings and experiences that come with it.
Every cup tells a story
At the pottery wheel in his basement home studio, surrounded by artwork hanging from the low wooden ceiling and ceramic cups stacked onto every shelf, Tool looks like he’s where he’s supposed to be.
As he spins clay into cup after cup, it’s clear that the process is like breathing — something he does without thinking, something he needs to do. One time, as a joke, he entered a competition where he made a cup while blindfolded. His before and after versions looked exactly the same.
“They didn’t have a category for ‘Looks the same with or without a blindfold.’ So, I didn’t win,” he laughs.
Tool went to Pasadena City College, where he planned to become an emergency medical technician. But after he broke his ankle, he enrolled in some art classes so he could continue to qualify for the full GI Bill. He took a ceramics class and started making his cups, but the instructor — who had served in the Army — told him he couldn’t decorate the outside of the cups with war images.
“It was some Army-Marine Corps rivalry thing,” he says. “So, I went home and started decorating my work, straight out of spite — just like, making molds with my insignia and my father’s insignia.”
Tool went on to major in art at the University of Southern California, where a professor and mentor, Ken Price, gave him advice that Tool has used to guide his work ever since.
“He told me that I shouldn’t worry about achieving a meteoric rise to fame,” says Tool. “Instead, he said, ‘Don’t think too much, just make a bunch of work. Show your work. And get rid of everything in the work that isn’t yours. If you’re successful, you will create your own idiom, your own language.’”
After college, Tool went on to get his master’s degree in ceramics at Berkeley, where he got more serious about making his cups in 2001. Since then, he’s made close to 22,000, most of which he’s given away or plans to give away. Tool doesn’t ask for payment, but does appreciate money for shipping — heavy ceramic cups aren’t cheap to send.
Piled onto his work desk in his studio are hundreds of stamps that he’s made from images and phrases he’s collected over the years. He spends hours decorating his cups, sifting through the mound to find the right stamp to tell a story.
Each cup is different — one has a photo of Tool as a Marine with a pawn chess piece next to him; another has a print of the grim reaper saying, “Thank you for your service” — but they all have the same feeling of violence and desperation, almost requiring that you dig a little deeper into the meaning, into the feelings they evoke, after seeing and holding the cup.
“A lot of the stuff that the cups bring up is not polite conversation,” says Tool. “To be demonized or idolized for something you did or didn’t do in a context that you could never explain, it’s hard. And so, it might feel like it’s easier to just not talk about it.”
Requests for cups come from all around the world. People — often veterans or their loved ones — will write to Tool with personal stories of war, asking for a cup to remember a lost family member or to help someone work through a rough patch.
“People will email me and ask me to make a cup for their brother who committed suicide or their son who’s having a hard time,” he says. “The real payoff is being able to hand someone a cup and see their reaction. I’ve given cups to people, and they were crying so hard, they almost dropped the cup.”
For Ryan Berg, an Iraq war veteran and Berkeley alumnus who met Tool through the Cal Veteran Services Center on campus, his cup helped him to begin to feel proud of his service — something he never thought he’d feel after he was discharged from the Marine Corps in 2007.
‘The moment my life changed’
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, wasn’t easy for Berg. His dad wasn’t in the picture, and he, his older brother and mom moved around a lot. “It was an unstable environment,” he says. So, when Marine recruiters showed up in his high school halls, looking sharp and talking about opportunities to serve his country, the 18-year-old thought joining the military sounded exciting.
“They just had this confidence about them,” says Berg. “They told stories about being on ship. It seemed adventurous.” The high school senior decided to enlist in the Marines right then. “Looking back, it was a suicide mission,” he says.
After “tinkering around” at the University of Nebraska for a few years, Berg was deployed to Iraq in 2004 at the age of 22.
The sun was just coming up when Berg stepped off the C-130 aircraft at Baghdad International Airport. Right away, he heard gunfire in the distance. “That was the moment my life changed,” he says.
Although he believed in his battalion’s main mission — to ensure that the area was safe enough for the Iraqis to vote democratically in a free and fair election — his heart wasn’t in the war. But it didn’t matter. If he wanted to live, he had to fight. He had no choice.
“I carried fear the entire time,” says Berg. “There were moments when I was really scared, but I always carried a deep sense of fear the entire time I was there. And no one ever talked about it.”
As part of an infantry unit, Berg and his unit were kicking in doors, performing foot patrols, hitting targets and arresting people.
“We were angry because we were scared,” he says. “If I had been connected to my heart, to my emotions, it would have broken my heart. When we experience trauma, it’s a survival adaptive mechanism to dissociate — you have to, because we’re being asked to kill other human beings, to hunt other human beings. All that anger is coming out onto people we think are the enemy.”
After his deployment ended, Berg returned to Nebraska, where he enrolled in a political science class at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
One day, the class was talking about the war in Iraq. Berg felt like the class didn’t understand what was actually happening — that they were discussing the war on a theoretical level, when he had real, on-the-ground experience.
“I was really charged up,” he says. “Wired tight, like a guitar string.”
He decided to redeploy to Iraq. As a reservist, he searched until he found the first unit that was deploying, which happened to be in Alameda, California. The military bought him a plane ticket, and after three months of training, he was back in Iraq.
The moment his feet hit the ground, Berg was overcome with fear and dread. “I found myself back in this place that was scary and violent and unsafe. I was just thinking, ‘What have I done?’”
After several months, Berg, then a sergeant, and a few other Marines were drinking one night and got caught with alcohol. As punishment, Berg had a stripe taken away — he was demoted to a corporal — and was discharged from the military.
“It was heartbreaking,” he says. “I’ve held some shame about that for a long time. For men in our society, and especially veterans, I think that writing and talking about our feelings is frowned upon for a lot of reasons. I think a lot of guys are afraid of what they’re going to find.”
In 2010, Berg transferred from Diablo Valley College to Berkeley, where he majored in rhetoric. He became involved with Cal Veterans, a group on campus that provides programs and services to student veterans, where he first met Tool.
Last year, Berg took a workshop taught by Tool where he decorated a clay cup using Tool’s stamps. It was then that he began to allow himself to work through the pain he had been holding from the war and gradually feel proud of his service.
“I was feeling a lot of shame when I was making my cup, because my experiences were really coming to life,” he says. “By feeling that shame, I was making room for gratitude to come later. Now, I’m able to use my cup to sort of drink in the pride that I feel about my service.”
It’s a moment of healing and connection that Tool hopes his cups continue to bring to people. And that he hopes ceramics students at Berkeley can find through creating their own art.
The ceramics studio at Berkeley
At Berkeley, Tool manages the ceramics studio — something he’s done for more than a decade. He assists in classes and occasionally teaches summer courses. In working with students, he tries to channel his former mentor, Price, who told him to create his own work.
“When I’m teaching, I just try to get the students to trust themselves, try to get them to express themselves,” says Tool. “I want them to talk to each other instead of just listening to me. I don’t know how to make their work. I can show them how to make copies of my work, but I don’t know how interesting that would be.”
The whole world comes through Berkeley, he says, from students to visiting lecturers. And each person brings a different perspective.
“At Berkeley, you get exposed to so many things,” he says. “The conversation is here. All you gotta do is listen.” It’s something that Tool strives to do — to start and listen to conversations — with every cup he makes.
“People are always talking about how it’s therapy for me. I’m like, ‘It’s not therapy; I’m making art.’ But, you know, now that I’m creeping up on 22,000, I’m realizing, ‘OK, it might be therapy.’ Even now, as we’re talking, I can feel it: I’ve just gotta go make cups — quit talking about it, and just do it.”
Tool says that although he hopes his cups are helping people, serving a bigger purpose, he doesn’t know for sure.
“Maybe they’re just cups,” he laughs. “I don’t think that anything I do will change the world. But nothing in the world releases me from my obligation to try.”