It says something about the strangeness of the art projects that James Franco has pursued in recent years that the biggest takeaway from his latest exhibition, “Pipe Brothers,” isn't that he's now making art on giant ceramic sewage pipes, but that he's working with a Franco brother whom you've never heard of (nope, not Dave).
Tom Franco is happy to confirm his family’s eccentricities. “I’m like the chill, calm one,” James and Dave’s 37-year-old middle brother, an artist who typically makes found-object sculptures, said from his home in Los Feliz, Los Angeles recently. “Everyone’s like, 'Tom’s my favorite,' because I’m, like, normal.”
Of course, “normal” in the context of the Francos still means that it was actually Tom who came up with the idea of using sewage pipes as the latest medium in his ongoing artistic collaboration with James—one that even Tom had to admit was “kind of unusual.” But when Tom, who's long worked with clay, first heard from his mentor, the “ceramic whiz” John Toki, about Mission Clay, a pipe producer in Phoenix that has been inviting artists out to play with their clay since 1979, he couldn’t help but be intrigued. “Their whole thing is, Just go for it,” Tom explained. “You make the rules—their only rule is don’t hurt yourself.”
That freewheeling approach appealed to James, naturally. He sent Tom no less than 60 images of his works to paint and carve onto the clay pipes, ranging from “explicit sexual content” to “other racy ones,” like depictions of O.J. Simpson. In a move typical of their working relationship, Tom edited those down to six images he actually “would like to help make and be a part of,” as he recalled with a laugh. "James works really fast, has an abundance of ideas, and will bring out ideas I’ll never dare go to. But I’ll bring a finishing touch to the things he wouldn’t put the time into finishing."
Of course, the results are still extremely weird: “There’s one called 'Dragon Slayer' that has a bunch of dragon heads—I think it’s a spin-off of the role-playing game, plus the band Slayer,” said Tom. Among the other pipes James made that were too big to display at the exhibition’s first showing—at the Ceramics Research Center at the Arizona State University Art Museum, before it begins to travel this fall—were “a Sesame Street coloring book scene with Ernie and the Count dancing through the woods with the gay flag rainbow,” and a six-foot wide pipe featuring six portraits from James’s high school yearbook that he definitely didn’t ask permission for.
One wonders if Tom ever says no his brother's ideas. He laughed. “It’s hard to veto James—it’s almost like if you were to do that, he would just do it stronger,” he said, taking care to point out that this time James did listen to him when it came time to edit the exhibition.
If there’s anyone who could deal with his artistic impulses, though, it’s Tom, who not only has made a living out of collaborating with artists, but has a lifetime of dealing with James under his belt, especially on creative terms. At 15, he decided to join James in taking figure-drawing classes at their local art center. “We were the youngest people in the class, looking at naked figures and drawing them and just being like... ‘This is weird,’” Tom recalled.
And while James (and then Dave) dove further into acting, Tom, who was then acting a bit as well, discovered a ceramic sculpting class and officially started to follow in the family footsteps. (Their parents were both painters, and their grandparents ran the Verne Gallery in Cleveland, which is now in the hands of their uncle. In 2015, the gallery played host to Tom and James’s exhibition "A California Childhood," which was later that year followed by one at the Firehouse's Berkeley space called, aptly, “Bromance.”)
After going to art school at U.C. Santa Cruz, Tom moved to the Bay Area to enroll in the masters program at California College of the Arts—and immediately began second-guessing his career path. Though he was thoroughly enjoying his group experiences in a dance troupe in San Francisco, and tai chi and judo classes in Oakland, to his surprise, Tom, who said his work is typically "super joyous and upbeat and colorful," started to find his ceramics classes intolerable.
“They were training us to be isolated and lonely and a little depressed,” he recalled.
So, after forming what was essentially a “visual art band,” a group that broke the academic rules to work together—gasp—on each other’s homework, Tom made like James, who dropped out of drama school, and abandoned his program to turn that group into Firehouse Art Collective. The collaborative hub for artists has since expanded to six locations in the Bay Area, and Tom has been its sole director since 2004.
It's a full-time job, but Tom also just joined his brother on the board of Elysium Bandini Studios, a philanthropic film studio and streaming platform James co-founded last year to benefit the arts nonprofit The Art of Elysium, and whose visual arts division Tom is now spearheading. With that role will no doubt come more projects like the brothers's EBS project a few years ago, when they teamed up with their mom to turn a story of hers (Betsy Franco has written over 80 children's and YA books) into a film called Metamorphosis: Junior High, which they filmed at their former high school in Palo Alto with 40 high school students from five different local schools.
Just as he's been directing films for years, James has worked for some time as an artist—and yet is still ostracized by the art world. “James gets a lot of criticism for being a painter while being in the acting world,” Tom, who believes his brother “is creating the visual culture of our time, especially with the youth and this edgy art part of film,” said.
“But he still does it, he keeps going, he takes it very well,” Tom continued, admitting that at times it does get to James—which is why one work in the show is a giant pipe covered in cats. “Sometimes he’s just like, 'You know what? I’m just gonna paint a f---ing cat. Who can say anything about a cat? It’s just a cat,'” Tom said with a laugh. (Related: In 2016, James mounted an exhibition in Switzerland that simply featured birds.)
Soon, Tom may be grappling with those same problems himself, now that he's been getting back into acting much more seriously (he's had brief cameos in James's films Spring Breakers and Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Later this year, Tom will be appearing in The Disaster Artist alongside James, who directed the movie and stars as Tommy Wiseau, the director of the infamously terrible film The Room, as well as his brother Dave. (Not to mention Dave’s wife, Alison Brie, plus Zac Efron and Bryan Cranston.)
On set, though, it wasn’t exactly the family reunion you might expect: Tom's brothers, it turns out, “both stay in character,” he recalled. “James was Tommy Wiseau the whole time.”
Still, Tom insisted that didn't present any difficulties: “I mean, James is a character every moment of his life,” he added with a laugh. “It’s just now we’re on set.”
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