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Getting 'cosmic' with Tom Franco on his art and ASU collaboration

Franco touched on his philanthropy and artistic philosophy

Tom Franco Image

Artist Tom Franco works on an upcoming clay art piece in his studio in Phoenix, Arizona on Sept. 14, 2017. Franco visited the ASU campus for the showing of his clay pipe project, which took place on Sept. 8, 2017 at the Ceramics Research Center in Tempe, Arizona.

Tom Franco visited ASU this summer to collaborate with the ASU Ceramics Research Center and Mission Clay, producing the “Pipe Brothers” exhibition along with his brother James Franco. 

The middle Franco brother is a founder of Firehouse Art Collective, which is a space that provides studio space and housing for artists. Firehouse was founded in Berkeley, California and now has multiple locations throughout the state.

The "Pipe Brothers" show consists of several clay pipes that the Francos carved and painted. 

The studio where Tom crafted the pipes is located in Mission Clay's facility in Phoenix. Bryan Vansell, the founder of Mission Clay, which fabricates industrial piping, provides studio space to artists.

“(I) really enjoyed working with (Tom). He comes down with people who help him, a very young, energetic team,” Vansell said.

Tom has also been working with Garth Johnson, the curator of ceramics at the ASU Ceramics Research Center, throughout the stages of the exhibition. 

“I immediately sensed something that dovetails between ASU’s mission and then Tom Franco's mission, which is building community, and having the curiosity to move between different disciplines,” Johnson said.

Tom spoke about his personal philosophy on art, his experiences with ASU and what the future has in store. 

At what point in your life did art become personal for you? When did you start feeling the need to create to satisfy your own need?

I think in high school I made a deliberate decision when I was 15. I was looking for answers, and I got to a point where I was trying to avoid certain kinds of trouble — dynamics, friendships and events where I would get into trouble. I had a history of getting into trouble with them. If I’m avoiding something, then I gotta fill that space with something else, and that's where art kicked in. That's when I started carrying a journal around everyday, and so one of the the practices I did at 15 was do a drawing a day, everyday. And it was an interesting transition from drawing things that I could see into drawing things that I could imagine. And once I made the leap into imagination, that's when I stopped drawing things that I could see; that was it. 

I noticed that you and your brothers keep going back to your high school years in Palo Alto, California. Why is keeping that connection so important to you guys?

I think James started that, for sure. He does a lot of art about that time in his life. It’s a returning theme: It comes out in movies, comes out in story writing, comes out in his paintings. I had similar aspirations as far as staying in touch with youth, but it didn't have to be Paly, that high school for me, because I was doing a lot of child care and it's so amazing spending time with different ages. That’s one thing I also like to bring to the communities that I live in. I wish someone grabbed me at different ages and said, “oh you gotta participate in this activity.” Re-living the different generations of being a person by hanging out with them — it’s such a revelation. I really believe in that. There's no too-lates or missed opportunities. It's all fresh in everybody's memory and body. 

Is it ever intimidating to dedicate so much time to art? Just because art can sometimes be isolating, and the business aspect adds to the pressure.

Absolutely. And I hate the idea of visual artists being isolators. It’s very strong in our group conscience that that's the case — or has to be the case — and it goes further than that. It portrays the artist much worse than being an isolator, I think. I started to experiment with other art forms that were group-oriented. So a moment that I had a big breakthrough is when I joined a dance troupe in San Francisco and we traveled around, kind of like a traveling gypsy group. It had live musicians and a lot of improv. We’d tell stories. We’d tell theatrical stories through dance and music. Completely opposite of my experience in the ceramics studio, where I was like, “I make this alone, and it better be good, and I'm comparing it to your thing that you make alone.” 

When you do start a project or art piece, do you ever have goal in mind or do you allow the art to reveal itself? 

No, there are goals. The extreme is working on something. These days it's about working on things about this big, and it went from metal to clay to paint, acrylic paint, plastic. The extreme of what we’re talking about is working on something visually without any mental ideas about it. I can get there more easily with sculpture than I can with painting. The opposite is doing illustrations, so I have a story in mind. I prefer something in the middle. I'm the happiest when it's a little bit cosmic. It engages people in telling the story themselves so somehow there's an emotional response from the cosmic part, and then any story that they tell is correct. You can't go wrong. 

I noticed that all of your illustrations and sculptures and art pieces have some kind of narrative to them, and sometimes it's even childlike. Why is that so important to you and where does it come from?

I usually think about stuff that I make as a direction I want to go. Do I want to put it on my wall, in my house? Do I want to live with it? And there's a lot of art that I enjoy that I think is great art that I do not want to live with. My goal is more to be very intimate, to have an intimate connection and personal connection not just for me but for the viewer. And I prefer to spend my time thinking about things that end up with me and excite me versus things that torment me and that are serious issues. So I make light of everything, and sculpture is the one area I don't mind going in whatever direction. Topics come up in my psyche. Whatever comes up, I'll work with it. I would say that about every art form, for myself. 

Is working with ASU exciting for you?

It’s been awesome. I’ve met a lot of students. I've really only heard good things. I have heard people say how everything is available here, as far as this very cross-disciplined approach and make-your-own-destiny kind of attitude. We’re gonna come back. (Elysium Bandini Studios, a non-profit film production company that Franco works with) is gonna work with the film department here as a way to start collaborating. We have aspirations to bring arts back to school systems. There's no art missing here, but a lot of public schools don't have art anymore, so places like ASU are a great starting spot to then create a buzz, create a momentum, but then not to stop at ASU. Keep going. Get those kids that are really underprivileged in the arts or adults or whoever. 

Tell us more about the ASU film collaboration.

First project would be building the collaborative team to work with ASU film students and create an actual feature. It’s happened before, but we would do it with EBS involved. There's nothing really stopping that from happening, even before we started talking about it, other than that all the parties have to say yes. And in a project of that scale it's too easy for people to get caught up in no’s, so that's where I think we can help. And that's where we're talking. 

Is there anything you plan and hope to accomplish in the future? Where do you eventually plan on placing your energy?

We’re shooting for a more public art kind of an approach. These pipes are kind of a great example of how I kind of just stumbled into this atmosphere. I wouldn't have thought myself sitting in this room three years ago. We've been working in here for a year and a half, sweating on these pipes, but not knowing what they really are. It's kind of like this is such a big opening towards public-oriented art in a very doable way, a safe way, a group-oriented way that there's a huge opening for in our country. That’s a very practical thing I think that we're shooting for: to take art to public shared space. 

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