Photo by Andrés Felix Romero. Ehren Tool demonstrates his expertise with clay.

Veterans find healing through the arts


by Andrés Felix Romero

On a gloomy Thursday afternoon, a Gulf War Marine Corps Veteran brought a warm energy to the ceramics studio, nicknamed, “The Laundry.” The veteran, Ehren Tool, is the senior laboratory technician for the ceramics studio at UC Berkeley, and has created and given away over 26,000 ceramic cups. Tool’s art documents the pains that military veterans struggle with after their service. Tool smiled behind his bushy beard and told stories about his healing journey, from his time as a Marine to his time as an artist. Tool expressed how his ceramic cups convey aspects of military culture that are difficult to openly discuss.

“The cups are an opportunity to talk about unspeakable things,” Tool said. “War is murder, and military sexual trauma is rape, that happens in the civilian world too. Where can you talk about that? Where in polite society do we talk about these things that happen with too many people and the effects they have on their lives?”

Ceramic students in attendance to Tool’s demonstration, such as Jack McCann, were inspired by how veterans have found ways to express the grief they feel. 

“I really felt like in the art there’s a lot of pain, every piece is almost like mourning,” McCann said. “It’s helpful to see people grow even after experiencing something like war.”

The class that Tool was a guest instructor for was part of a weekend-long veteran’s day celebration, organized by Humboldt College Corps, Cal Poly Humboldt’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and College of the Redwoods. The events aimed to focus on how veterans can heal from their traumas in the military. Part of the weekend events was a dinner and panel by veterans at the Arcata Veterans Hall on Nov. 9. Tool was part of the panel alongside Air Force veteran Mark Walker. Walker is the East Bay Deputy Director for the veteran’s support non-profit, Swords to Plowshares. Walker and his wife Lynn were in attendance at Tool’s demonstration in The Laundry. Lynn Walker hopes that the arts can help veterans similar to how ceramics have helped Tool. 

“For me, [art] allows you to open up [feelings] that are suppressing you, to things that you don’t want to say,” Lynn Walker said. “[Art] opens up your being to where there’s a healing process as you identify [your emotions] through art.” 

Alongside Tool and Walker for the Nov. 9 panel were Air Force Veteran Joe Fox, Marine Corps Veteran Ryan Jensen, Veterans Affairs Health Nurse Ella Price, and U.S. Army veteran and Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Jeff Crane. Crane shared his experiences on how education in his college has supported veterans.

“I’ve thought about this in my own work,” Crane said. “Arts and Humanities have a critical role to play in veteran’s transition, in supporting veterans, and in educating people about the role of the military in American life and in the world.”

Panelist Joe Fox is an interdisciplinary studies major at Cal Poly Humboldt and also facilitates a veteran’s ceramics class at College of the Redwoods

“I found healing in significant ways through playing with clay,” Fox said. “My only plan in all of this [art] is that somehow I’ll be able to connect some resources in our community, and there will be space for other people to find [healing].”

The main event was the 3rd annual Veteran’s Day at McKay Community Forest in Eureka, CA on Nov. 11. There was a five and ten kilometer walk/run, as well as free barbeque, music, and painting. There was an opportunity for attendees to decorate their own ceramic mugs to be completed later. On Nov. 13 and 14, there was another ceramic demonstration at College of the Redwoods by Jessica Putnam-Phillps.

No matter how veterans try to overcome their traumas and suffering, Mark Walker holds onto hope that his fellow vets will find whatever sustainable means available to find their healing, art or otherwise.

“Different veterans find different things of purpose, inspiration, and therapy,” Walker said. “Whether it’s formal or informal therapy. It’s just about what veterans find to be healthy, get healthy, and stay healthy.”

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