Vet uses ceramic art to reflect on war


September 10, 2015

“They’re just cups,” he says. “Just cups.”

He goes on to say that they’re not that special, and that they shouldn’t be considered fine works of art. But Ehren Tool knows better than that. Ehren Tool shapes a ceramic cup Visiting artist Ehren Tool shapes the final small ceramic cup out of a block of clay at the Arizona Artists Guild in North Phoenix on Wednesday morning on Sept. 8, 2015. The ceramic artist is featured in a show that will have an opening evening on Sept. 11 at the ASU Art Museum Brickyard in downtown Tempe. Download Full Image

Deep down, the ceramic artist from Berkeley, California, knows they’re an invitation to a conversation about the unspeakable and irreversible effects of war.

“My wife calls my work, ‘War Awareness Art,’ and it’s not necessarily for or against war but you’d better be aware of its long-term impacts,” Tool said on Thursday as he spun a potter’s wheel in front of a group of veterans and the general public.

“I don’t question my service. I still love the Marine Corps. It’s just that there’s a gap between the stated goal and the outcome. Rhetoric breaks down real quick after you’re in the battlefield or in the zone, and rounds are going both ways.”

Tool promises there will be no rhetoric at the exhibition, “Statement Piece: Erik Gronborg and Ehren Tool,” which opened in August and will run until Nov. 21 at ASU’s Art Museum Brickyard, located at 7th Street and Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe.

A free and open reception for the exhibition will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Friday, when Tool will make cups in the museum’s gallery and give them away.

Over the past decade, Tool has given away more than 14,000 of his handmade cups. He does this as a statement against the large cost of war.

The exhibition features some of his cups, but it also brings together two socially engaged artists from different generations.

Denmark-born Gronborg, who will not be present for the opening reception, spent several years in a work camp for conscientious objectors before moving to the United States, where he made his mark with a series of functional pots addressing the Vietnam War.

Tool joined the Marine Corps in 1989 and served in Operation Desert Storm as part of the Military Police. Upon his return, Tool began to study ceramics, using functional pottery as a way to explore his revolving views about military service and the human toll inflicted by warfare.

“Gronborg and Tool have been paired for this exhibition because of similarities in their work and parallels in their personal histories,” said Garth Johnson, ASU Art Museum’s curator of ceramics. “Both artists harness the power of images pressed into wet clay. Both create approachable, functional pottery with social content built in that causes the person using the artwork to contemplate their own relationship with the U.S. Military.

Tool says he’s had a lot of time to contemplate his reasons for joining the marines — he thought it would make him a man. But he says his gung-ho attitude going into the service was quickly blunted by the horrors of war.

“When I told my grandfather that I was going to join the Marine Corps, he laughed and then said, ‘They’re going to steal your soul,’ ’’ Tool said. “It wasn’t the Kodak moment I was looking for.”

The picturesque moments Tool experienced were mostly grisly and cynical, which are stamped and emblazoned on the side of his cups. They feature skeletons, bullets, bomber planes, flowers, dollar bills, war medals and the occasional quote – “It’s just business” or “Worst religion ever.”

The exhibition also features 393 broken cups, which Tool created and glazed, and then shot at close range with a pistol. The broken cups, he says, represent the number of U.S. combat casualties at the end of the second Gulf War.

“Each one of those cups had the potential to live 500,000 to a million years, but a little piece of lead found them,” Tool said. “Those soldiers could have gone on to have kids and grandkids, or they could have been engineers, doctors, lawyers or could have gone on to do great things.”

“I think peace is the only adequate war memorial.”

For more information about “Statement Piece,” call 480-965-2787 or visit asuartmuseum.asu.edu.

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-5176

ASU professor named Navajo Nation poet laureate


September 11, 2015

Growing up in a tiny town on the Navajo reservation, Laura Tohe relied on comics, fairy tales and books to stimulate her mind — even if that meant a four-hour round-trip drive to the nearest library.

“Since we didn’t have television, reading was a way out of the rez for me,” said Tohe, an English professor in Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Books took me to other places in the world and to other time eras.” Laura Tohe weaving Arizona State University English professor Laura Tohe is being named the poet laureate of the Navajo Nation for 2015-2017. She finds writing to be like weaving; she’s continuing the legacy traditions of her mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother, using some of their tools as well. Here she weaves in her Mesa home on July 13. Photo by: Charlie Leight/ASU News Download Full Image

Today, the Tohe era will commence when she is named the new poet laureate of the Navajo Nation at an official ceremony in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Tohe succeeds Luci Tapahonso, who was named the nation’s first ever poet laureate in 2013.

The goal of designating a chief poet is to encourage other Navajo writers and artists and to underscore their contributions to Navajo culture.

Tohe has already contributed much to the Navajo Nation and the literary world.

She has written four books, published hundreds of poems and has had several translations of her work ­­— including into dance and music. In 2008, Tohe wrote the commissioned libretto for “Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio” for the Phoenix Symphony.

Tohe credits a vivid imagination and the lack of a family television to her success.

“I was introduced to reading with the ‘Dick and Jane’ series at school,” she said. “I gravitated to fairy tales, and when my mother could afford it, she bought me ‘Little Lotta,’ ‘Richie Rich’ comics and later my brothers reluctantly let me read their comics — ‘Superman,’ ‘Batman’ and others.”

Tohe grew up on the reservation in Crystal, New Mexico, near the Chuska Mountains on the eastern border of the Dine/Navajo homeland. The town’s population hovered just above 300 people, and outside of attending school, there wasn’t much to do. Storytelling was not only a way to pass the time, but an art form among her people.

“One time I drove with my grandparents down Highway 666, and they recounted all of the places where a relative died or some incident happened. It was a highway of stories,” Tohe said. “I grew up with an oral tradition, and that has been my biggest influence in developing my voice and my work as a poet and writer. ‘You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories,’ is what my mother used to say.”

Tohe said as a child she told such captivating stories that a family friend would come over to listen to her when she’d go on a tear. Her stories eventually grew into poetry and sometimes prose poetry.

“Dine people, like many indigenous peoples, have always had great reverence for language, for sacred words and how they are used in meditations,” Tohe said. “For example, prayers and song meditations are used to heal and restore health and wellness for someone suffering from a certain illness. It can also uplift the human spirit.”

In her duties as poet laureate, Tohe wants to help uplift the Navajo people, specifically the next generations.

“I would like to see our younger generation continue the tradition of writing poetry, what we call ‘Saad Naazhch’aa,’ which translates to ‘pictures with words,’ ” Tohe said. “We didn’t have a word for poetry a few years ago. Since our language has diminished with the boarding-school era, poetry can be one of the ways to revitalize and save the Navajo language.”

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-5176