Cups for conversations — about war


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Ehren Tool is the ceramics studio manager in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley and a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War. In his off-time, he makes brutal-looking clay cups that he hopes start conversations about war. Since 2001, he has made and given away more than 21,000 of them. Here he is — in his own words — talking about his cups.

(This audio is from a video about Tool that was published with a feature story on Berkeley News in February 2020.)

Ehren Tool sitting at his work desk in his studio

Ehren Tool is the ceramics studio manager in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. In his off-time, he makes clay cups that he hopes start conversations about war. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode #89: ‘Cups for conversations — about war’

Intro: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.

Today we share a story about Ehren Tool. He’s the ceramics studio manager in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. In his off-time, he makes brutal-looking clay cups to start conversations about war. Since 2001, he has made and given away more than 21,000 of them. Here he is — in his own words — talking about his cups.

This audio is from a video about Tool that was published with a feature story on Berkeley News in February 2020. You can find a link to the story, plus a transcript and photos, in our show notes.

[Music: “Take Off and Shoot a Zero” by Chris Zabriskie]

Ehren Tool's hands hold a clay war cup

Tool has made and given away more than 21,000 cups since 2001. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Ehren Tool: War isn’t like anything else, and war isn’t like it is on TV. I don’t think it’s really possible to communicate. And even just how an event in a war can affect different people. You know, I make the cups to start conversations.

My name is Ehren Tool. I’m a veteran of the ’91 Gulf War. I’ve made and given away more than 21,000 cups since 2001.

I joined the Marine Corps in ’89, and I thought I wanted to be a cop to protect and serve. I went military police, graduated top of my class. We did convoy escorts and enemy prisoner war handling.

One day there was an older Iraqi officer, and he was holding his hand on his shoulder, his hand on his hip, his hand on his knee, and saying, “Baghdad, Baghdad, Baghdad, 1, 2, 3, Baghdad, Baghdad.” Eventually I figured out that he had three children in Baghdad, and then I said that out loud to the Marine next to me. I said, “Oh, he’s got three kids in Baghdad.” And my buddy said, “Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. All gone.”

And that guy dropped like we shot him. He just crumpled and just sobbed, just uncontrollably sobbed. At the time, I didn’t know, maybe we hadn’t [inaudible] Baghdad, but anyway, it kind of undermined the argument of they hate freedom or they hate us. This guy was just concerned about his three kids in Baghdad. And so, that messed with me, and I decided I didn’t want to be a gunslinger anymore.

Tryptic image of Ehren Tool making clay cups

Every weekend, Tool works in his home studio in Berkeley making cups, which he decorates with hundreds of stamps that he’s made from images and phrases he’s collected over the years. (Photos by Brittany Hosea-Small)

[Music: “Casual Desire” by Ugonna Onyekwe]

I got out of the Marine Corps. I took the GI Bill. I went to art school, and I took a drawing class just as a whim kind of thing. But that instructor, Ben Sakoguchi, was Japanese American, he said all art’s political. That really resonated with me.

Decorating the cups initially I started with my own insignia, and then my father’s insignia. As it went on, I’d borrow other people’s insignia. And toys, right, like the gas mask that I wore during the ’91 Gulf War. GI Joe made a version of it. The collection just keeps growing. All the images mean something to me, and they’re emotional for me. You can’t really be thinking about too many other things when you’re throwing. The stamping, then you can get lost in all kinds of crazy conversations in your head.

Ehren Tool spins a cup on a pottery wheel

One time, as a joke, Tool 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. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

There are times I cry in the middle of making cups, but I feel like making the cups is something that I really need to do. It’s a desire to serve. My father didn’t talk to me about his experiences in Vietnam. My grandfather didn’t talk to me about his experiences in World War II, until I came back from my war. It’s impossible to communicate, so it feels easier just not to talk about it at all.

Most of the requests come from vets or their families, because people will just cold email me and ask me to make a cup for their brother who committed suicide or their son who’s having a hard time.

The real payoff is being able to hand somebody the cup and have their reaction. It’s a little message in a bottle that I get to throw out there. I gave cups to people, and they were crying so bad they almost dropped the cup, or hearing stories afterwards. A woman who maybe had a hard relationship with her father, I made the cup for them, and she took the cup back to the father, and then they had this conversation. The daughter got a new insight into her father, and what his experience must have been like. It’s priceless the opportunity to have these conversations.

[Music fades]

Yeah. Once you get done messing with it… I mean, keep messing with it, and we’ll fix it at the end.

I work in the ceramics lab here at UC Berkeley. I think that a lot of what’s causing problems in the world is ignorance. At Berkeley, you get exposed to so many things. The conversation is here. All you’ve got to do is listen. There’s something about the Marine Corps that I try to bring to teaching, and try to bring working here that we are all in it together, and everybody’s perspective is important. Working at Berkeley has been great for that.

Tryptic of Ehren Tool sitting with his clay cups; a closeup of a cup that says "Not for sale;" a group shot in the ceramics studio with everyone wearing masks of Ehren's face

Tool says that although he hopes his cups are helping people, 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.” (Left: Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small; top right: UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally; bottom right: Photo courtesy of Ehren Tool)

[Music: “Flecks of Light” by The Tower of Light]

I say I just make cups, and part of that is a self-defense thing that I don’t want to say that the cups are these grand and noble things that are changing the world, and then find out that they’re just cups. I’d rather just say they’re cups, and if they’re anything more, that’s great. But if they are anything more, it’s not because of me. It’s not because of the way they’re made. It’s because they resonate with somebody else.

There’s still Marines out there in combat in harm’s way, and it’s hard for me to ignore that. I don’t believe anything I do is going to change the world, but nothing in the world releases me from my obligation to try.

Outro: This is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast. New episodes come out every other Friday.


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