Interviewsand Articles

 

The Power of Giving: Conversation with Ehren Tool, Fariba Safai, and Ashley Smith

by Richard Whittaker, Oct 21, 2004


 

 

     Fariba Safai and Ashley Smith were still students at CCA when they decided to do something radical. They decided to prepare a large batch of home made soup (from a favorite recipe of Fariba’s mother), to construct a cart able to wheel a very large stainless steel pot along a sidewalk, and to make their way to Union Square in San Francisco on Black Friday[the day after Thanksgiving and largest shopping day of the year] where they would offer free bowls of soup to any and all. 
     Ehren Tool, a marine who served in Iraq, upon finishing his tour of duty, enrolled at UC Berkeley to study ceramics in the Art Department. There he learned to throw on the wheel and found himself engaged in a new mission: making and giving away thousands of handmade ceramic cups. Each was shaped like a tea bowl and sometimes accompanied by a letter. And each cup was impressed with military emblems and images such as bombs, rifles and gas masks. Tool refers to himself as a “war awareness” artist.
     What struck me most strongly about these three artists is that they were all giving their work away, no strings attached. In the context of the artworld, art that shocks is standard fare. But the kind of shock one expects from "shocking art" is something disturbing, not something that takes you out of your expectations and leaves you feeling grateful. Here was a new kind of shock, the shock of service, of giving, of generosity.   
     I thought it would be an interesting subject for others and was curious to see how an audience would respond. The people who came were in for a special treat.  

Richard Whittaker: I think it’s interesting that both of you were giving something away, Fariba and Ashley.In your case, soup and the ceramic bowls you made for serving this to strangers. And Ehren here has been giving away these unusual cups, which he makes. It was actually a big shocking when I learned how Ehren has literally been giving these cups away for a long time now. It’s funny, isn’t it, that this would be so shocking?
     You know, ever since the Dada movement after World War 1, in the artworld the importance of shocking the bourgeoisie has become almost a convention. Every good art student, it seems, tries to produce something to disturb us. And with the steady media diet of shocking stuff we’re fed, I find that this kind of art isn’t usually very interesting. But when I met Ehren and learned that he had already made and given away four thousand cups—this shock came right in and woke me up somehow. [turning towards Ehren] So Ehren, how did this whole notion come to you, of making these cups and giving them away?

Ehren Tool:  I’m not sure. The letter project started with mailing letters to the president and whoever.

RW:  You sent letters with these cups?

Tool:  Yes. Sent a cup or a bowl with a letter, and part of that was I was in the Marines for five years. There’s a real strict chain of command and you can’t really jump that. But now, after five years, I’m a civilian and the president works for me! So I can write him a letter directly. Having been in the military and then coming out, and knowing that the military is still there, and that there are guys still out there doing what I did, makes me feel like there’s kind of a siren going off all the time. It feels kind of surreal. So being able to find the address of the person who is sending in the orders to send people over, and write them a letter and send them a bowl makes it feel a little less unreal.
     Then, going on with that, you know ceramics is not too high on the art totem pole. Literally, a woman took a photograph of a bowl that I made for her and sold the photograph of the bowl for thousands of dollars in New York. You can’t ask for thousands of dollars for a ceramic bowl. [laughs] But the photograph will last only fifty years; the ceramic piece will last a couple of thousand years. So rather than accept five dollars for a cup and say that’s what it’s worth, I just give it away.

RW:  Now you were in Desert Storm, right? and saw action there?

Tool:  Yes.

RW:  Having been in the war and then coming back into this peaceful environment must be a shock, so is making these cups and sending them to certain people connected with the war a way of keeping sane or something like that?

Tool:  Well the thing is, I don’t know if this is really a peaceful environment. I mean I grew up in L.A. and I was actually shot at in Los Angeles. I saw the person with the rifle shooting, and I saw somebody who had just been shot. But usually we’re removed from that kind of military end of the stick. But cell phones were a big thing in ‘91. The Army had them and we had these big blocky global positioning things, too. Now they come standard in some vehicles. So I think America and American civilians are much more involved in the military than they are aware of. People ask me, “Wow, how does it feel to go to Berkeley? It’s such a liberal school!” You know, the UC system has been running the nukes in the states since the ‘50s. It wasn’t some backward redneck who came up with biological weapons. It was some serious, probably nerdy, scientist guy.
     So it’s just kind of bringing that military thing that seems absent here. I know there are veterans and refugees in our society who have experienced more than I have, but they went further on that trail and they can’t even talk about it. But I went far enough that I can’t avoid it now. I have to acknowledge in my work that we’re still taking part in it and profiting from it in some ways.
     I just have to acknowledge it, and because it is so personal to me, I would feel awkward about selling it. If people really get it, then I don’t want to take money from them. If they don’t get it, then I don’t want them to have it.

RW:  There’s something true and deep and you don’t want to sell it, make it into some kind of commodity.

Tool:  That’s true.

RW:  It’s such a major issue in the art world, the whole dichotomy of making the art and selling it.

Tool:  You know what really bothers me with the selling of art, is that it justifies the practice in some way. Like you’re in this really hot gallery and you sold all your work for this huge amount of money. So therefore now the work is true and valid work. I don’t know who’s buying that, but I’m a little nervous about them being the people who define what is relevant in our culture. Where if I give away four thousand cups—my wife overheard someone here at the exhibit saying “Yeah, I don’t know what these cups are. Maybe this is somebody who didn’t get into the show.” [laughter]
     So that’s fine. You know there are a lot of artists who make work their whole life and nobody ever gets it or appreciates it. But working in ceramics, I’ve got a couple of thousand years for the work to make that connection. That means I have a few thousand curators with my work, too. [laughs] It’s not a precious material and it didn’t cost them anything, so they’re not holding on to it for that reason. So, if they’re holding on to it, they’re holding on to it because it means something.

RW:  Well I’d like to hear a little from Fariba and Ashley. Tell me how you came to the idea giving the soup away, of giving the bowls away, of going out and doing this thing in the public…

Ashley Smith:  It was something we had talked about and had wanted to do for quite some time. We finally decided to go ahead and do it on Black Friday.

RW:  And Black Friday is…?

Smith:  Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States. It’s the day after Thanksgiving. We decided that the best place to do that was downtown San Francisco around Powell street, the shopping district. We went down there and were there for quite a few hours that day.

Fariba Safai:  First I want to say that Ehren is one of our inspirations. We love his work! I just want to say that, because it’s true. But yes, we went out—we thought we were there for only a few hours, maybe two hours, but actually we were there for six or seven hours. Time just flew by. It was a very bizarre experience.
     We wanted to do something because the war was coming. We had both gone out protesting and were frustrated by the fact that whatever we did and the hundreds of thousands that we saw marching with us made zero difference, and the millions around the world, made zero difference. We thought, okay, then we’ll have to take this in our own hands and do something that makes a difference, at least to us, if nothing else.

Smith:  We also had decided to give the bowls away. It was important to us on such a spending-orgy kind of a day. When we gave the bowls we reminded people—they’d say, “How much? How much?” and we’d say, “No, we’re giving this to you.” “You’re giving it to us!? What do you mean?”

Safai:  They insisted on wanting to pay us.

Smith:  They wanted to pay us for it! We said, “It’s free. Go ahead. We don’t want you to spend money. We’re buying you lunch today. Enjoy it, and keep the cup! Keep the bowl.” People came back for seconds.
     So it was important for us, that act of giving—especially on that day—to really point out to people, who are buying for Christmas, you know, that giving is not just about what you can hold, what you can buy, but it’s about the intention behind it, and the act of giving.

Safai:  Particularly because in the media at that time president Bush was telling us to “go shop.” That was going to be the way we support our nation, by shopping. Everyone was out shopping. And people listened. I had never seen anything like it. It was the most surreal thing, because there were hundreds and thousands of people out, but the strangest thing was that they were being herded by motorcycle cops because, of course, the threat level was high. [laughs] It was just surreal.
     And here we are with this contraption, our soup wagon, in the middle of the street. But for whatever reason, the cops—we were right in front of them and they just left us alone. We’re like, “Okay, Cool! We can protest without getting arrested!” [laughs]

RW:  That’s wonderful as a form of protest. It’s such a subversive thing in a way, to give away something on the greatest shopping day of the year. You must have had a lot of interesting experiences with people. Tell us a little about the personal encounters and how that all worked.

Smith:  When the day was over, when we had the car loaded and were back in the East Bay, is when my body physically felt everything we had gone through and when I reflected on it, the people that we came across was a wide spectrum. There were well-dressed men in leather suits, coming back for seconds, to people from other countries who barely spoke English who were communicating with us; they were loving what we did; there were people just thanking us. We had two homeless men who got down on their knees and kissed our hands. They said, “In England, they bless queens.”

Safai:  We also had people who were like…

Smith:  … eeeuuu! How could you eat that?

Safai:  “What are you doing? You’re disturbing my shopping event!”

Smith:  We were big with this cart, too! And there wasn’t much room to walk by us with your bags.

Safai:  For some reason they had closed off Powell Street. We started on Stockton in front of Macy’s and kind of rolled the cart all the way in front of the Nordstrom building. They had closed it off and so the sidewalk space had condensed and we were literally taking over the space were people were walking. So they had no choice but to confront us and our cart, and the reactions were often bizarre. It was very emotional for us.

Smith:  Oh, Absolutely!

Safai:  We were, the whole day, holding back tears because of the amount of love you received from the people who were getting it, who were enjoying that cup of hot homemade soup. It’s such a small act, really.

Smith:  So simple…

Safai:  It was such a, just nothing really—in the context of the world and what’s happening. What did we do? Big deal! We made a cart and a bunch of bowls, and I got my mom to make some home-made soup!
     But I don’t know, it was really moving emotionally for us, more than anything…

Smith:  I mean I had one gentleman say, [in a severe tone] “Why are you doing this?” There was a little bit of aggression in his voice, and I explained everything. I said, “We want to buy you lunch. We want you just to take a moment to think about an alternative; to think about peace, you know. Take this time.” And he said [loud voice] “Oh. Okay.” Just instantly, it all melted away. Everything that day was just a spectrum up and down.

Safai:  I think that in most people’s hearts, the idea of peace was there. I think even people who supported George Bush were not really into the idea of going into war. And I think, in that way, we weren’t really being threatening by having this bowl of soup to give to people. I don’t think the gesture was that threatening. I think that’s why it was received, for the most part, more than not.

RW:  With both your work and Ehren’s work, there’s clearly deep feeling behind it and a real sense of integrity, but your gesture of giving the soup, and Ehren’s of giving the cups, is not exactly easy to pin down in terms of ideology. Would you agree?

Tool:  Well, first of all [looking at Fariba and Ashley], I can give bowls away in a gallery and people are still disturbed! Don’t want to take it. A lot of people say “no.” Now out on the street, with food! I wouldn’t even try that! [laughs admiringly] 
     But I think with issues about war, it seems like both the left and the right are kind of narrow-minded and still have a real strong tendency to point fingers, which is really what I lost in the Gulf War. I went in ’91 for “The New World Order.” I believed all that. I really thought we were the good guys, were really going to do this thing that hadn’t been done in history before. It didn’t work out.

Question from the audience:  How old were you?

Tool:  In 1991 I was twenty-one. I mean I hear people talking and see this finger-pointing. That’s the only way you can shoot somebody, is to know you’re right and they’re wrong. I can’t do that anymore. I just had a kid, and I assume the guys on the other side love their kids just as much as I do. It’s heartbreaking.
     I don’t know how to react to the world except with art. I can’t work for an organization, or in a group. I get really nervous. Things start getting uncomfortable quickly, so I just make cups.

RW:  Let me read one of the letters Ehren sent with the cups. This is to the Ambassador Jean-Mark de la Sabliere, the permanent Representative of France to the United Nations:

“Dear Sir, I served as a United States Marine for a little over five years. I served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm and as a Marine guard in Rome and Paris. I am writing to you, the other members of the United Nations Security Council, and the ambassador from Iraq. I would like you each to have a cup I made, and to thank you for your efforts to avoid another war in Iraq. I am not very optimistic that your efforts will avoid a war, but I wanted to thank you for trying. Once a person has witnessed a war they are forever changed. Sincerely, W.A. Ehren Tool.”

[a few moments of silence follows…]

Audience:  Did you get any responses?

Tool:  The ambassador from the U.K. the U. S. and Chile responded. The ambassador from the U.K. wrote that “I have your cup and it’s on the table in my office. Thanks a lot.” The Chinese embassy didn’t accept the package, so I have the whole box [laughter from audience] It has “Refused” on it. [more laughter] but I don’t know why anybody accepts packages nowadays from random strangers.

RW:  it’s true. It’s not really so funny. But, as I said, I’m very touched by what you’re doing, Ehren, and by what you did [looking at Ashley and Fariba]. One of the things I remember Ashley and Fariba telling me is that they both wanted to do something with integrity at every level. So you made the cart, you made the bowls, and I wonder if you want to say anything about that principle of action…?

Safai:  I feel that if you’re asking people to be better, then you have to start with yourself. I think that’s where Ashley and I are right now. We’re working on that. It means a lot to us to make everything by hand, to do it all, to be conscious, to use recycled materials if we can, because at the end, if we are not who we are asking others to be, to me, the whole thing would be a big lie.

Smith:  Absolutely.

RW:  You said another thing that stuck with me, that doing art allows you to do things you couldn’t do in any other way. Would you say something about that?

Smith:  I think the cart is a perfect example of that. Like we said, there were cops down there. We got out and saw them and were, “ohhhhh, I just hope we get a little time out there and can do this.” And nobody said a word! We’re out in front of Nordstrom and the security guard asked us to move. He told us we couldn’t be in front of the store, but he also said, “You’re doing the right thing.”

Audience:  When you offered the soup, what did you say?

Smith:  In order to engage with people, we said, “Hot, homemade soup. We’d like to buy your lunch today.” Then people would come up and talk.

Audience:  So sometimes conversations would get started?

Safai:  Oh, yes, every time. No one would come up and say, “Oh, Okay.” [audience laughs] But the first bowl we gave away, we were shocked that we had actually done it. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. I mean, it’s a crazy idea when you think about it. We thought, “Okay, if worst comes to worst, if we just give one away, just one, that’s good.” But at the end of the day, we had no more bowls left and people wanted more bowls, more soup. We thought, “awwww, why didn’t we bring more with us!?”

Audience:  What kind of soup did you make, and why did you decide on that particular soup?

Safai:  We chose soup because it was cold and my first ideal was making sure the homeless got something hardy. That particular soup was because it’s one my mother makes. It’s a winter soup. She uses barley and herbs and everything organic—good, hardy, stick-to-your- gut stuff. And it smells divine. It tastes really yummy. My mom is famous for her soups. She’s a good cook. So it tastes really good and it smells good, and it would have been hard to reject it.

Audience:  How long did it last?

Safai:  Oh, like five or six hours.

Audience:  And it didn’t get cold?

Smith:  The cart was built so you could put burners underneath, like sterno. We kept it hot.

RW:  [to Ehren] What are some memorable moments you’ve had giving away the cups?

Tool:  Memorable, because it was kind of threatening, was some guy at an opening. He was really aggravated, red-faced pissed off. He came up to me and started asking me, “What’s the deal with the letters?” He thought that I’d created this character, Ehren Tool, who was a Marine and is now an artist making cups. He was in Marines and really pissed off. He thought I was just making fun of people, or something. I told him, “No, it’s me.” He calmed down.
     I mean, it’s surprising—just the conversations that come up. A lot of people want to know what side I’m on. If I’m doing stuff about the military, it’s got to be pro or anti. That’s another reason I’m sort of uncomfortable with selling them, because there is a lot of crazy, surreal, pro-military stuff out there for sale—tchotchke kinds of things.

RW:  Military toys, and that kind of thing?

Tool:  Military toys and beer mugs.

RW:  You showed me some of those things you’d collected. Some have recordings where you pull a string or press a button and they give you… scary messages. [laughs]

Tool:  Talking president figures. We have George Bush talking, George Bush Jr. in a flight suit with this speech he gave saying, “Mission accomplished.” I think the toy thing started for me when I saw the gas mask I wore in the Gulf War—you know, in case there was really gas in the air—for sale on these twelve-inch action figures. You know, totally detailed. The package had the words “six and up” in the corner. What?? 

RW:  This is a little theoretical. Now you both make objects that are actually aesthetically pleasing, but I think that what’s is more primary than the aesthetics, is the act on behalf of values you feel are important. So the aesthetic object is one thing and the act in the world is another. I wonder if you have any thoughts around this?

Tool:  Well, for me aesthetics on its own is boring; the conceptual on its own is boring. It’s a little more interesting combined. And you know, my military thing, I just can’t get over that. I hope that it’s more than just therapy art. I can make an image and most people who don’t have any personal experience with it are not really sure what it is anyway. So they just take it as a symbol and read into it whatever they want. But for me, it has meaning. For the people who know that meaning, that’s enough. As long as somebody gets it, not just me.
     I had this show in Los Angeles, October 2001. Everybody was saying, “Oh my God, this work is so timely.” Actually it was about the Gulf War eight years ago. And no offense to anybody here, but I think that this show[refers to the current exhibit in the space where we talked]—and just political art in general—I think it’s almost pointless now. Because the killing has started and it’s going to have to run its course before anyone is going to listen. Before 9/11 we could have talked to the other side and had a dialogue. Now it’s just heads on fire.
 
RW:  I think it’s an interesting question: can political art do anything? But the change could go two ways. Is there something that happens to the person who makes the art?

Tool:  I don’t think it changes anything, but that doesn’t release me from the obligation to make it. Artists can put their spotlight anywhere and I am kind of stuck right there for now.

RW:  [looking at Fariba] You were nodding your head.

Safai:  Well, I feel that in the process of giving, you’re receiving. In that way, this act is the greatest of them all. You can’t change anybody else. You can hope for change. You can hope for enlightenment, whatever. What that means to everyone is different. So all you can do is hopefully start with yourself. So in the end, in that process of giving, you’re really self-healing. You’re self-giving. I think that is the greatest aspect of the true artist. Most artists who make art from their gut, I think they’re doing it because of something greater than just making an object. That’s where aesthetics become pleasing, because you’re doing something where you want to induce some form of the beauty within.
     If you think about it, there’s so much ugliness right now. We almost have to counter-balance that in some form. I mean, with Ehren’s cups, there are some horrific images on them, if you think about it, if you know what they are, and yet, there’s beauty in it. It doesn’t repulse you. That’s important! Because, if you’re stating something that’s political, and it repulses you, then you’re going to step back. You’re not going want to look a little closer.

RW:  That’s well said, and now maybe there’s room for some questions.

Robbin Henderson [BAC director]:  I think the most important thing is what Fariba just said, that in the act of giving, implicit is a reciprocity. Things happen in both directions. In the act of receiving a gift, you are also, somehow, reciprocating that gift. So I actually think that’s what really operates. Maybe it’s what you [looking at R. Whittaker] were getting at when you called this the The Power of Giving.

RW:  And I think it also relates to something Ehren, Fariba and Ashley have said—you can’t charge money for these things. I think there’s a psychological or spiritual truth operating there, that if I get this impulse mixed up with other things, something is going to suffer. I don’t think we get much guidance in this culture to help us with this principle. We’re sort of on our own to discover these things.

Tool:  Not to be too much from the pessimistic side—I mean you show a thousand pictures of a thousand cups and one of them is mine. People will say they saw a thousand cups. When people get it, then they get it; and that thing we’re talking about happens. But I think that’s not a sure thing. If they didn’t have to pay for it, then it’s not worth it! But I’m comfortable with that; at least, more comfortable with that than if they pay five bucks for it, now let’s sell it for ten.

Henderson:  One of the things you seem to be saying is that you refuse to put a value on these objects you’re creating.

Tool:  I’d like to make a living, but I’m just not comfortable with the way it’s set up now.

Henderson:  Let me ask you something then. What is the difference between the cups that you’re giving away and the pieces you have on the wall?

Tool:  I’ve written the Marines I’ve met through other people. Somebody gave me the address and I sent them a dozen cups and usually a bottle of whiskey, but that’s not part of the thing I’m going to present in the art world. The letters are kind an artificial relationship, right? I mean I found the address on the internet and wrote them a letter and sent them a cup, and now there is a dialogue there. The four thousand cups I gave away, I was there and we had a drink together, or could have. So there was a real exchange there, but most people react more to seeing a letter from Charlton Heston than actually having a beer with me.

Audience:  Recently, in the last few years, I’ve worked to give away bags of groceries at food pantries. Most of the time, as in artist, I’m doing my idea of what I want to give to the world, but when I work at the food pantry I’m giving something where people know what they want. They don’t know they want my artwork, but they do know they want these bags of groceries. So it’s different when you’re giving something intentional as compared to when people are just taking it. Do you have anything to say about that?

Tool:  Well, it’s a more mutual thing in the gallery or on the street. They can walk by or not, but with a letter, somebody has to answer it. And the people I write to already have control over people that I don’t know if those coming into the gallery have. They’re pretty heavy people.

Safai:  And I think that, in your case Ehren, it’s much more complex. You were witness to a war, taking a side in a war for your country and whatever experience you had obviously changed you forever, because you’ve chosen, pretty much, to dedicate your life to expressing yourself in this particular manner. So it’s not so simple. I was witness to a revolution. I was in a war zone. You cannot explain that someone who has never experienced it.

Audience:  Where was this?

Safai:  It was the revolution in Iran. You can’t explain what you see, when you see that level of violence, whether it’s righteous or not righteous. It does change you forever. You could become a drug addict, one of those veterans homeless on the street. Or you could have pretended and gone on and become whatever else. But I think by choosing to do what Ehren’s done, to me, that’s an inspiration, because he is doing something positive, probably out of something that was quite negative. It had to be. I don’t think it’s always so black and white.

Smith:  Getting back to saying you made this cup. To me, that act is more. Ehren’s not saying, “I made this cup.” He’s saying “Hey, take a look. Consider.” I think it’s the same way even on the simple level of being in the gallery, too, just sitting there and being on the wall. It’s just asking for consideration of the fact.

RW:  There’s another aspect, too. Ehren gave me some of these cups and I took them home. At one point, I thought, “Okay, they’re cups. I’ll drink something out of one of them.” But as soon as I thought that, something at a deeper level rose up and refused. I didn’t want to drink out of that cup. So I think it’s a powerful thing to give someone a cup with a bomb and a skull on it. It put me in front of something in a surprising way.

Audience:  I think it’s really subversive. I think your project [to Fariba and Ashley] is also, on a certain level.  A subversive way of giving an idea that you want to share, both of you.

Safai:  I think certainly everyone has an intention, no matter what they do in life. So if you deny your intention, then that would be a lie. So certainly we have intentions in what we do. We’re not just babbling around in space.

Audience:  What else did you say besides “would you like some hot soup?”

Safai:  We said, “We’d like to buy your lunch today.” “We’d like you not to spend money today.” That’s exactly what we said, “No. You don’t have to pay us. Put your money away.” Let’s think of a way of maybe not always having to need money to help each other.

Smith:  “We’re trying to spread peace today.”

Safai:  Yes. In a time of war. That’s what we said.

 
 
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine

 

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