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Franco brothers and Mission Clay create ASU’s latest exhibition

Mission Clay Art and Industry partnered with James Franco and his brother Tom to create massive art at ASU

Tom Franco and Firehouse Art Collective Members working on the pipes for the "Pipe Brothers" exhibition at Mission Clay. Photo by Alex Diana

Tom Franco and Firehouse Art Collective Members working on the pipes for the "Pipe Brothers" exhibition at Mission Clay. Photo by Alex Diana

The Egyptians had their temples supported by intricately designed pillars, the Greeks had the Parthenon and now ASU will support its own set of pillar art, if only for a limited time.

Artists Tom and James Franco have partnered up with Mission Clay Art and Industry to create massive clay art pillars which will be on display at ASU from June 17 through Sept. 23.

“Pipe Brothers” is a set of nine hand-carved and painted ceramic sewer pipes that stand at about seven and a half feet tall, weighing nearly 750 lbs.

Garth Johnson, curator at ASU Art Museum’s Ceramic Research Center, said that bringing it all together in the building in Downtown Tempe was a feat in its own.

“They have to be handled with forklifts,” Johnson said. “Part of the fun of this exhibition is that parts of the museum will have time lapses of this.”

"Pipe Brothers: Tom and James Franco" installation timelapse from ASU Art Museum on Vimeo.

He said that as a curator he is very interested in collaborations and people, an interest that was part of bringing in these massive creations.

“I’m very interested in collaborations and people who color outside the lines,” Johnson said. “The Francos for sure fit that bill. Then Mission Clay is a pleasure to work with in that regard as well.”

From dinosaur fossils to James Dean, each clay pipe has it’s own unique narrative and took hours of work and buckets of sweat.

To help with these creations, Tom Franco did a little collaboration himself as he brought members from his non-profit, Firehouse Art Collective which provides artists access to affordable places to live, work and collaborate, to help with the design and labor required to create these pieces.

“When we started coming to Arizona, we came in the middle of summer and it was hot,” Tom Franco said. “We would just sweat all day long, doing 12 -16 hour days on our feet. It gets pretty intense.”

He said that because of the intense heat, the clay would start to crack. In order to put moisture in the air for a suitable work environment, they had to flood the floor.

“We were working in a sauna, literally,” Tom Franco said.

He and his team would come out to work on the clay pipes in one week increments, and he said it was often a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” type job.

“They make their own clay body,” he said of the clay they used while working at Mission Clay. “Compared to opening a bag of clay you are buying at the store, it’s tough. So it’s more like carving wood …. I’m seriously ripping out pieces, getting blisters and the it’s very close to what a wood slice would look like.”

Since the clay is so hard to get off, putting it back on isn’t really an option, especially since it won’t stick, Tom Franco said. Rolling with the punches was the name of the game, but he said that he and his crew were just fine.

“That’s what we’re good at,” he said. “Our group - because of the nature of our collaboration - we often take a painting or a small sculpture and someone starts it and then we’re just like, ‘It’s your turn to work on it.’ We just build off each other.”

John Toki, Mission Clay’s art and industry associate director, said Mission Clay’s collaboration with Tom and his band of artists came from a suggestion he made to the director of the program, Bryan Vansell.

“I said, ‘Bryan, I really believe it is important to support younger artists and a perfect example is Tom Franco,'” Toki said.

Tom had been a former student of Toki’s at the college of California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California.

“I saw a show of Tom’s and James Franco’s work in Berkeley …. That’s when I thought it could be a collaborative exhibition at ASU through the Mission Clay Arts and Industry Program.”

What started as a thought two years ago has turned into the nine different pipes that will be on display, a documentary film on the experience through Elysium Bandini Studios (James Franco’s non-profit video-streaming service and production studio) and a film being produced through ASU as well, Toki said.

He said that James Franco said he would ask Iris Torrez, a film producer for James as well as Tom’s fiancé, to work with some of the students at ASU to learn from a film producer what it is like.

“The educational component is very, very important to me,” Toki said. “That ASU students are going to gain and learn something from this project.”

For Tom, he said that the college atmosphere is a great place to have this traveling exhibition shown first.

“I love the college atmosphere,” Tom Franco said. “Having that atmosphere is really inspiring. I model my art group on that kind of atmosphere. I couldn’t be happier, more inspired and comfortable coming to ASU.”

To find out more on “Pipe Brothers” and the ASU Ceramics Research Center, click here

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