Franco Brothers Find Inspiration in Phoenix

Collaborative artwork by Tom and James Franco comes to ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center.

Creativity runs in the Franco family. James Franco, primarily known as a television and film actor, has also found success as a writer, visual artist, director and producer. Tom Franco, full-time sculptor and community builder, founded the nonprofit organization Firehouse Art Collective, which provides affordable spaces where artists can live, work and collaborate.

The Franco brothers frequently make work together, but none of their projects have been as unique and ambitious as Pipe Brothers: Tom and James Franco, an exhibition consisting of nine large carved and painted ceramic sewer pipes, which measure 7.5 feet tall and weight nearly 750 pounds each. The show opens on June 17 and runs through September 23 at the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center in downtown Tempe.

“From a rabbit furiously jumping rope to James Dean behind the wheel of his infamous Porsche 550, the Francos totally embraced the cylinder as their canvas, creating narratives and immersive perspectives,” says Garth Johnson, ASU Art Museum curator.

To create the artwork, the Francos, along with members of the Firehouse Art Collective, paid frequent visits to Mission Clay Products, a Phoenix-based factory that produces the pipes, which are more durable and sustainable than plastic.

Under the direction of owner Bryan Vansell, Mission Clay Products has worked with ceramic artists for more than three decades as part of their Arts and Industry program, which allows artists to engage with the industrial ceramic fabrication process. Since its inception in 1979 the program has hosted a variety of artists including Don Reitz and Jun Kaneko.

Tom Franco, sculptor, and Bryan Vansell, owner of Mission Clay Products. PHOTO BY ALEX DIANA

Tom Franco credits Vansell and the staff of Mission Clay Products for inspiring him to work outside of his comfort zone. “There were so many firsts for me with the medium of clay — the size of the sculptures, DIY working conditions, immersion in process,” says Tom Franco. “I’ve completely fallen into an obsession with the cylindrical form; it’s like finding a primal shape that we can’t live without.”

Johnson sees a connection between ASU’s interdisciplinary mission and the Franco brothers’ collaboration. “To make this project happen, Tom and James had to adjust their working process to fit into the factory’s rhythms and equipment,” says Johnson. “The learning curve with any ceramic project can be steep, but their countless hours of carving and painting resulted in the nine finished pipes.”

The Francos strongly believe in community building and public art. Because the pipes are incredibly durable and contain narrative elements to help viewers interact with them, the brothers envision them as great public sculptures.

Pipe Brothers: Tom and James Franco

June 17 – Sept. 23

ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center, 699 S. Mill Ave., Suite 108, Tempe

For more information, visit

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