Ehren Tool at Cypress College 2021

While researching the conceptual potter Ehren Tool for this article last year, I noticed his CV didn’t include the whopping $50,000 United States Artists Fellowship (USA Fellowship) he was awarded in 2010. When I asked him about it, he said, "Oops." Fascinated, I pressed him on it. "I just make cups all the rest of this stuff is really a pain," he answered, similarly disinterested in unnecessary punctuation. The guy who has given away over 25,000 – and counting – of his hyper-embellished "please-think-about-war" cups, is not kidding.

Returning disaffected from the 1991 Gulf War, the third-generation military man, upon landing, wanted to talk about war. Incessantly. For the unpleasant, even brutal, ideas Ehren wanted to share, he circuitously found a novel way to initiate, if not force, conversation: through the intimate surface of a simple cup. On the way, he found both a place to begin self-healing from witnessing war-time depravity and waste and to commune with his fellow marines, their fathers, mothers, siblings, spouses, friends, survivors, and his admirers are a subset of Americans for whom war is not an abstraction. War is a source of profound disenchantment, reorientation, and loss. His wife calls them "war awareness cups."

No matter what Ehren says, his cups are more than "just cups"; they are an important contribution to contemporary ceramic art. They are included in permanent collections across the continent, from the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., to the Scripps Collection at the Ruth Chandler Williamson in Claremont, California. They have been featured on PBS’s "Craft in America" and in the New York Times. In 2010, they won him that prestigious USA Fellowship, awarded annually to only 50 of America’s finest artists deemed to "illuminate the value of artists to society." But all of that is, clearly, beside the point for Ehren. His cups are, more importantly for him, where they are most intended to be: in the hands, homes, and hearts of marine veterans, their families, and friends.