Interviewsand Articles


Ehren Tool: A Marine's Journey

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 2, 2004



ceramic art by Ehren Tool

One afternoon I was visiting artist Mark Bulwinkle at his studio. I'd heard he was building a new kiln which would allow him to work with larger pieces and I was excited. For watching war on TVI hoped I'd be seeing his new work soon. As we chatted he shared a little about a young man helping him with the kiln, Ehren Tool, an ex-Marine. "He's big," Mark said, leaving a pause of silence to underline the words. Jeezus," I thought. How big?" Mark's a big guy himself.  
It was raining outside, and the sound of the rain on the metal roof of Bulwinkle's large quonset hut in West Oakland made a pleasant drumming sound as we poked around on a leisurely tour of the studio. Mark was enjoying reminiscing, stopping here and there to tell stories sparked by one or another objet d'art, object trouvé, objet d'heavy machinery or objet d'scrap as we were passing by.

We stopped in an area where stacks of tiles and small ceramic pieces sat on shelves. Mark was picking up old tiles he'd made and looking them over. He talked about how he'd learned how to work in clay after graduating with an M.F.A from the San Francisco Art Institute. He'd spent time in the school's studios late at night studying a manual written by Richard Shaw. "it was always there in the studio. Everything was in that manual!" he said.

Mark worked for months that way into the wee hours of morning. The atmosphere at the Art Institute in those days was so casual that no one had noticed. Picking up a tile with a bas relief of one of his typically wild characters, Bulwinkle started to laugh, "Look at that guy," he said and, as he peered in more closely his laughter really caught hold, a genuine convulsion.

It's a special pleasure many artists must know, the joy of getting something just right. In this case, I think it was something about the futility portrayed, the comic self-delusion in the face on the tile. The pathos and absurdity of the small-time schlub putting on the face of a bad-ass dude. "Look here," Bulwinkle said, catching his breath. He pointed and held the tile close so I could see it. "He's got a bullet hanging around his neck." It was the detail that pushed him over the edge.

It's impossible to describe what exactly one sees and feels in the moment when certain combinations of irresolvable perceptions fall upon one all at once. Sometimes dissolving in a convulsion of laughter is the only way to handle it. The portraits were not altogether abstractions, I knew. These were types of men Bulwinkle knew well and for whom I think he has a soft spot.

We made our way through the astounding collection of material on the ground floor and then up a flight of stairs to a mezzanine. Here was an old printing press he used for printing his wood cuts. He'd had another press, he told me. It was heavier, a letter press which had been stored there on the mezzanine. "One day I pushed it over this way, and it fell through the floor, right there," he said with a quizzical look. "Broke a few things underneath, too," he added contemplating a spot on the now repaired floor.

As we made our way around the mezzanine, a full-sized 18th century cannon caught my attention. It was just sitting there as if it'd just been carted off the gun deck of the U.S.S. Constitution. I ran my hand over the heavy black barrel. "What's this doing here?" I asked.

"That cannon?" he said. "Oh, yeah, Ehren made it."

"He made it?" I asked incredulously.

"Yeah. It's ceramic, you know."

I didn't know. I'd taken it as the real thing - even after running my hand over it. It was made of thrown sections of clay joined together, fired and glazed black. The cannon sat in its wooden carriage and looked ready for duty. I suddenly wanted to meet this young man. I wondered what else I'd discover.

"He's usually over at Wurster Hall [UC Berkeley] working in the ceramics studio," Mark said. "He's also been making a lot of cups. You ought to see them, they're kind of interesting. He's working on his M.F.A."

Meeting Tool
A few weeks passed before I followed up, but it wasn't difficult to arrange a meeting. As I drove over toward the UC campus, it was just starting to rain again. By a stroke of luck, I found a parking spot on Bancroft just across from Wurster Hall. Across the plaza I spotted a service door to the basement studio area standing open. As I walked into the studio it wasn't hard to spot him—a big guy. And sure enough, it was Tool, clean-shaven and with a buzz cut. He was friendly, had a ready laugh, and after just a few minutes of talking with him, I sensed something hard to put my finger on. It opened my attention somehow.

Mounted on one wall of the studio space was a plywood cut-out, the profile of, as Tool explained, of a one thousand pound CBU 87 cluster bomb. It formed the backing for a rack of shelving—each shelf being the size of the cross section of the bomb. Each shelf was full of cups Tool had made. "It holds 202 cups, and each cup [he took one in his hand] is about the size of one of these little bomblets in this bomb."

Each bomb, he told me, holds two hundred and two little bombs, each with a lethal range of 70 meters. A single bomb, he said, was deadly over an area of 80,000 square meters. Next to the cups were some photos of military planes. "That one," he said pointing to one, is an A10. It carries four of these bombs."

On the wall was a diagram of the lethal area four CBU-87's dropped one after another would cover. During the first Iraq war 10,035 of these bombs were dropped. "They have a 5% dud rate," he said. Something like 10 or more of the little bombs in each CBU-87 don't detonate, so they lie around where they become lethal dangers along with land mines. If the statistics are accurate, that would mean from the CBU-87's alone, only one type of bomb among many used, something like one hundred thousand unexploded bomblets would be scattered over the battle areas in Iraq in addition to the land mines and all the rest of the unexploded ordinance.

"It just takes a little piece of metal." Tool said, holding up his forefinger and thumb. "One little piece. You don't know what some of those 18 year-olds might have done if they'd been able to grow up."

It was clear I was talking with someone who had been there. Tool had been a gung-ho marine, but had become disillusioned about U. S. policies after the war. "A lot of technology comes from the military," he said. "A lot of material progress grows out of it."

It seemed Tool wanted me to know that war isn't just a simple matter. Tool want's people to realize something about the realities of war. Holding up a George W. Bush doll in military fatigues, he said, "Look at this." In the studio Tool had collected a variety of war toys which were sitting around the studio, many still in their boxes.

"Look at this stuff! This is being sold to kids. These are toys. I wouldn't let my kids play with them." The toys promote a deadly illusion.

Tool described an installation he'd done in 2003 at the Burning Man festival. He'd set out ceramic cups he'd made in a grid—over a thousand of them—covering the entire 320,000 sq. meters that comprised the lethal footprint of four CBU-87 cluster bombs. A friend driving a truck helped him set them out. It took them all day.

Tool makes the cups on a potter's wheel using a technique called "throwing off the hump." The cups are simple in shape something like a Japanese tea cup. At some point after the cup is thrown, Tool, makes the various images by pressing an object into the still soft clay. The cups, though often morbid, struck me as undeniably beautiful."I gave 1200 of them away at the Burning Man Festival."

"You give these away?"

Tool first started giving these cups away four years ago. To date, he's given away over four thousand. "People have offered me money, but I don't want it. All I need is the money to buy materials."

I left Tool's studio with seven cups. He'd given them to me. When I showed them to my wife, she just made a sound and wanted to hold one to look at it more closely. They sit on a bookshelf. Not all of Tool's cups feature bombs, gas masks, skulls AK-47s, soldiers. Some show medals, service medallions, even medals from the militaries of other countries.

One day I picked up one of his cups and filled it with water. I began to take a drink, but with the cup an inch from I lips. I stopped. I couldn't drink out of it. It felt like I'd be drinking in more than the water—it felt like I'd be assenting to the killing somehow. On a phone call, I mentioned my reaction to Tool, that I didn't want to drink out his cups.

"But you are anyway, you know," he said.

It was unsettling. Tool told me that a friend had described him as a "war-awareness artist." Indeed.

Great article in NYTimes about Ehren.
Another one in The Studio Potter


About the Author

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


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