“I just make cups, that’s all,” Gulf War Marine veteran Ehren Tool said.
Tool is a part of the Dirty Canteen, an artist collective of veterans starting a conversation about misleading portrayals of heroism and war.
The ceramic cups that Tool crafts are engraved with tragedies of war and destruction. They are lined up in rows and displayed on a podium in Cal Poly’s University Art Gallery on the first floor of Walter F. Dexter (building 34).
“The cups seemed like an appropriate scale, right?” Tool said. “The images on the cups may be dramatic, but it’s still just a cup, right, so it’s not as upsetting as it would be as an 8-foot-by-8-foot sculpture. And cups usually involve beverages, you know, drinking; and that’s a nice way to have a conversation.”
The Dirty Canteen’s exhibit “Taking Place” is currently on display and will be shown at the University Art Gallery until Feb. 9. The exhibit’s title signifies veterans taking place in a “necessary dialogue,” veteran and artist Ash Kyrie said.
“This space not only functions as a place to show art, but it also functions as a place to get the community involved and to talk about … all sorts of things like diversity and inclusivity, or just things the students are interested in or that could benefit them,” Cal Poly art gallery specialist Garett Zook said.
The art exhibit gives students an opportunity for a different perspective on war and veterans themselves. Straying from the stereotypical view of an older, conservative veteran, the Dirty Canteen’s artwork tends to show a different and thought-provoking side of the military, according to Zook.
“These are people who served and then got out and they have their own things to say about their experiences because they are obviously very different from what other peoples’ [experiences] were,” Zook said.
Artist and veteran Amber Hoy felt her experiences while serving eight years in the U.S. Army were especially different being a woman.
Hoy’s photograph on display shows a jewelry box with items ranging from military-issued sunglasses and dog tags to sewing kits and perfumes.
“This photograph sums up my whole project [The Entrenched Series] — the trauma of being a woman in the military, the trauma of going to war and being of these two different worlds and how they don’t quite fit together, but then sometimes they do,” Hoy said.
Her other artwork focuses on radar systems and miscommunication. Hoy referenced the the recent false missile alert in Hawaii and faulty Russian missile detectors during the Cold War when explaining her work in a lecture prior to the exhibit’s debut Jan. 16. Hoy explained that both human and radar miscommunication could lead to disaster.
Tool prefers his cups to speak for him.
“When people connect with [the cups], that is when they become more than just cups and that’s kind of out of my control,” Tool said. “I can have all kinds of fantasies about what I think the cups mean or what I want the cups to do but you know, when I’m not in the room it doesn’t matter; they got to fend for themselves.”
The cups on display are detailed with gas masks, skulls and war rhetoric in media. They are only a few of the 20,000 or so cups Tool has made and given away over the past 17 years.
According to Tool, he began giving away his cups after art shows because he found that the people that connect the most with the cups usually had suffered directly from war. Tool considers their sacrifices as more than enough of a payment for what he calls “just cups.”
Similar to many of the Dirty Canteen members, Tool chose to use their art as means of honoring veterans and their families without further promoting war.
“I joined the Marine Corps and it was a desire to serve, it was a desire to do something good and noble, and the gap between what I thought I was doing and what I did was kind of vast and painful,” Tool said. “Same with the cups, like I want them to serve a purpose, I want them to start conversations and help healing … but, I can’t wait for [the public] to respond to the cups the way I’d like them to, I just gotta keep doing it.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the University Art Gallery was in Robert E. Kennedy Library. This has been corrected to say the University Art Gallery is located in Walter F. Dexter (building 34).