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Artist Profile: Tom Franco

Artist Profile: Tom Franco

Making an impact on the world is something Tom Franco speaks about often. He may be the brother of two famous actors and the son of a well-known author but Franco has been carving his own path for the last two decades as a sculptor, painter, illustrator, entrepreneur and actor. On top of producing a continuous flow of art, maintaining multiple businesses, and collaborating with other artists, there is a deeper drive that propels his creative force. “The goal of my approach is to address the idea of living a creative lifestyle. If this can be achieved so many things fall into place for an individual.”

Welcoming, playful, thoughtful and generous, Franco has built creative businesses that foster artistic communities, opportunities and collaborations. Fourteen years ago he began The Firehouse Art Collective that provides space for artists in an interdisciplinary environment and recently became a partner of EB Studios; a non-profit that helps filmmakers build an online platform. With these two projects he has amassed an ever-expanding “band of artists,” as he calls it. Creating supportive environments for artists to flourish with one another, the spirit that Franco injects into all his endeavors is collaborative and celebratory. For Franco, working in conjunction with other artists is imperative. “You have to reach out and form a band of players to do the act with. It is only then that art is sustained and makes an impact in the world.” As Franco’s art tends to scale large so do his ideas—thinking and envisioning bigger if only to include more people.

Beginning on April 13th, Tom Franco will be featured in the Franco-Moragrega Gallery show /kelCher/ A Mosaic Recognition in San Diego. The exhibition “celebrates and embraces human being acceptance, our heritage and traditions without prejudice.” It only makes sense that Franco be commissioned since the theme aligns so harmoniously with Franco’s own mission in life. In the middle of preparing for the opening of the show, Franco took time out of his busy schedule (although he makes it seem so effortless), to talk with Rogue about how his origins, creative journey and his new exhibition in San Diego.

ROGUE: Take us back to when you first were drawn to art. Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to be an artist?

Tom Franco: I always felt creative as a kid, we used to play all sorts of games, me and my older brother James and my mom.  Re-inventing our rooms and toys in ways that had no instruction booklet. It was quite fun and chaotic, but we never spoke about it really in terms of art or being an artist.  My parents actually graduated as art painters from Stanford University as top of their class, and with their own hardships with the arts lifestyle they didn’t want to verbally encourage us to be artists.  I knew that I stood out whenever there was a class art day in elementary school, I could tell the teachers were intrigued and talking about my work quietly to each other, but not to me directly. And how many art days were there really, not that many.  If I went to a different art centric school things might be different for me now. I think my whole education and cultural upbringing heavily defined my role in art and community making today, showing me exactly what was missing from my own youth. A big part of my life today is focused on creating experiences for people, that I figured out in hindsight, that should have happened, but didn’t.  Part of being an artist or creative entrepreneur for me is thriving on those realizations that there is culturally something, some area of life, that everybody agrees is essential and needed, but totally lacking in the day to day norm for most people.

What ideas were you exploring initially and how have they evolved, changed even, as you’ve matured as an artist?

In high school I taught myself how to draw what I saw and developed a practice of carrying around a journal and doing one drawing a day.  It really was a way to socialize with the others and share something other than partying or getting in trouble. There was a moment at around the age of 18 that I took a trip to India with a group of young meditation seekers and we visited a highly renowned ashram that was an international destination for thousands of people.  It was there that my daily drawings took on a new form, that of drawing less from what I was seeing and more from my imagination and inner world. It was like a flood gate opened up in my head and it started to become my responsibility to capture in art the visions that I would have. This was not really an instantaneous moment, but a break through from years of drawing and also meditating daily.  A mystical evolution took place, where the more that I practiced my art to express the things that I would see and feel inside of myself, the more the images that would flash in front of my mind would be in the style of my art making. I could at times even see the paint or pens being part of my vision. This is a total affirmation in making art because it is a big yes to have confidence in being able to create my ideas.  There is a direct play between harnessing meditation energy and expressing creatively. They work together so intimately and I can’t really say which one comes first.

Who are the artists that have inspired you over the years?

Bill Laculla is an artist based in Palo Alto that knows no boundaries when dealing with different mediums.  He has a magic touch with anything he picks up and I strive for that kind of openness in approach. Looking at the work of Nancy Graves (and talking with my father) taught me to harmonize the different materials I work with by making them look like they belong together.  She cast all of her found objects in bronze, which becomes very expensive. Raul Dufy’s paintings taught me to go with the colors that I like, more colorful is totally fine and thank goodness for that! And I love love love the artists that put creative vision first before technique.  Some of these people for me are Nikki de Saint Phalle and her husband Jean Tinguely, and the Baptist Preacher and Minister artists (not related) Sister Gertrude Morgan and Howard Finster.

What is your creative process? Do you have a vision for what you want before you begin or do you build the piece as you go?

I have learned to trick my mind into agreeing with letting go of how things are supposed to be.  Anything that allows my mind to be quite and my raw love and excitement to come forth is worth doing.  The thing that helps me the most in this way is working as a collaborative artist. If I ever feel stuck I simply call on my artist friends, or meet someone new, and pass the works back and forth with them to come up with something new.  There is a fine thread to following a work to maturity. I don’t even know what that last sentence really means because there is a paradox here. On one hand there are endless possibilities at any moment. And on the other hand, there is always the next best and right thing to be said through a piece of art at the moment in time and place.  Therefore it is about practicing the craft of letting go and having fun. If the work is not enjoyable then it’s not done. Another approach I use is to simply enjoy the objects and materials that I collect displaying them around the house. When I’m tired of looking at them as they are then I glue them together in new ways or paint on them until there is something that I just simply cannot live without.  There is a certain look to a piece of art that inspires curiousity and wonder, and it can then be looked at for a long time. That’s when I know it’s done.

Being in a family of artists, how did that shape your voice as a creative? And how did that inform your work ethic?

My family members have a strong work ethic and drive to stay enveloped in each their own creative aura.  It becomes a little bit of a pressure cooker because in order not to be crowded out by what everyone else is doing, I have to find my own source of inspiration and life style.  I will tell you, the flip side, is that my family is not very good at relaxing and just enjoying leisure time haha. But I have found myself in a creative situation and pushing for projects that I would have never attempted on my own with my own natural drive.  I’m a pretty content person without doing too much. The dynamic we create as a family is rather a “change the whole paradigm” kind of thinking. So I have learned to do that in my own best version with the themes and life style that I love.

You’ve collaborated with members of your family on numerous projects, for example with your mother, Betsy Franco, on her book Naked; an imaginative and contemporary tale about French artist Camille Claudel. Are there unique challenges as well as benefits to that intimate relationship when working? Are there overlapping themes that unite the types of projects you pursue together?

It has always been great working with my family.  There is a sense of unity and deep belonging because we do share some basic ideas and morals as a family.  For example, expressing from a youthful perspective and giving back through teaching and sharing openly with others.  I relate a lot to what my mom writes about and how she sees the world. It has always been a joy to collaborate with the family.

Painting, sculpture, illustration, film… you work with such an array of mediums. Do you naturally gravitate towards one over the others? Is your relationship to each unique and if so, how? Do you find that each medium inspires you differently?

I am first and foremost a found object sculptor.  It is what excites me the most during my day, and each day at that.  I have so much pleasure in collecting things, obsessing on the way random things look and what role they play in the world.  The place I live in West Oakland, is a lofted space, and downstairs is a huge room, about 300 square feet, that has a couple 15 foot tall industrial racks, a bunch of 7-foot-tall rolling butcher racks, and so much stuff that there is no more room for any collecting.  I usually have about 40 pieces that I work on at the same time, and I have found for some reason that the more messy my collection of stuff is the more easily I put a sculpture together out of the rubble. You can imagine how annoying this can be to try and live with, especially for my life partner, and for my own sanity.  There is often this diving into a deep realm of consciousness to pull out and put together a tangible sculpture as a record of the journey. If there was no record of the journey people would surely think my process would be insane.

So I am a sculpture first, and then I think of being a folk artist recording my time and place around me with the scenes I depict, and also an outsider artist because I’m inventing techniques of making, and a collaborative artists working with other people, and a California artist because this part of the world is soooo funky especially when compared to other states or countries, we are really goofy and odd ball.  I do translate my creative style into other areas such as teaching, story telling, video producing and acting, and I was in a dance troupe in SF for 6 years and I have practiced Tai Chi and martial arts for the last 14 years. As a balance to all of this I find myself most of the time as a community maker. So important for me, has been the act of being pro-active in breaking the isolation tendencies that are either self-inflected as an artist or culturally inflected upon me.  I am nothing without my community.

You started The Firehouse House Collective 14 years ago which provides spaces for artists in an interdisciplinary environment. How did the collective come about? What kind of culture did you want to create? How does it continue to help artists?

I like to think of the two radical ideas that created the Firehouse Art Collective are one, having your art band.  And that means that whatever you do, be creative about it, get your juices flowing with passion, and don’t do it alone.  You have to reach out and form a band of players to do the act with. It is only then that art is sustained and makes an impact in the world.  The second idea is that of collaboration, which I have mentioned already, but let me explain further. People collaborate all the time, but rarely is there a moment when someone hands you their project which they consider to be brilliant ideas and they say do whatever you want with it, have fun, let’s see what happens.  This is what I call true collaboration, because in that moment you have a choice of saying “what can I do to make this project better”. I mean you could say the opposite and really hate the project and destroy it or ignore what the other person has done and simply do your thing without any relationship to their thing. But to ask and execute with the intention of how to make it better is a rare moment in what I have experienced in life.  I first discovered this practice in kindergarten where adults felt like such a thing was possible with little kids. It is much harder to do this as an adult. I see it as a lifelong practice that I use in art making, but I also use it in community and culture making and I call this platform of experience The Firehouse Art Collective.

Two years ago, you partnered with your brother, James Franco, to create EB Studios. Can you tell us a little about its inception, mission and the role that you play?

This project, EB Studios, has at it’s core the long running group called The Art of Elysium.  James helped as a founder of EBS but is no longer involved, and I came on board because I really loved the mission and ideas behind the project.  We believe in a three-step process of helping communities in need of art by bringing artists into locations such as children’s hospitals for example.  We then support emerging artists that are working with the kids and promote projects that highlight their art forms. And in a full circle we work with highly successful artists who also volunteer with us and act as mentors to the emerging artists.  This work encompasses so many avenues for creativity, community, and people finding place in the world. It touches me deeply and goes hand in hand with what I have been doing in the Bay Area for the last 14 years. My role with EB Studios is as a partner to Jennifer Howell, the founder, and Rain Phoenix.  And the new aspect of this is the streaming platform which is the first nonprofit in the world of streaming platforms. The vision is to be able to build the largest endowment for the arts in the world, and we are starting.

Collaboration seems to be a repetitive motif throughout your career whether that be at the Firehouse Collective or on projects such as Naked and The Pipe Brothers Project that you realized along with your brother and Mission Clay Arts & Industry Projects. Why is collaborating and building a community of creatives—across disciplines—so integral to your mission as an artist?

There are a lot of reasons why art is not playing an active role in the average person’s daily life in the world today.  And I don’t need to go into the ideas of "what is art", here right now, because that is simply a distracting question. The heart of this for me, the goal of my approach is to address the idea of living a creative lifestyle.  If this can be achieved so many things fall into place for an individual. And for all people everywhere to achieve this will take lots of different approaches and circumstances. So that is why collaboration and cross discipline is so important.  We need to all be able to recognize the creative gifts we each possess and begin to unlock each person’s potential for why we are on this earth here and now. It’s like fitting together a multi-dimensional puzzle, piece by piece, taking care to see what edges locks into each other and what the big picture becomes in the end.  

You’ll be showing your work in a show coming up on April 13th at the Franco-Moragrega Gallery in San Diego called /kelCher/ A Mosaic Recognition. What’s this exhibition about and how did you get involved?

My longtime friend Dionisio Ceballos, a great painter and Emmy wining video artist, invited me to join him at Franco-Moragrega.  We ended up deciding to include 4 artists in all to help fill out the large gallery. But for me I said I want to work with my art band which consists of 6 more people hahaha!  And they agreed, so my group, newly named Tom Franco and the Dreams Art Team, made 7 brand new paintings on the theme of Cultural Identity. We have men and woman in our group, each from different countries of origin and race and color, with a diverse sexual orientation.  My group is completely fearless when we all get together and dive into a project, the results are always surprising for me, it’s like Christmas in April.

The show “celebrates and embraces human being acceptance, our heritage and traditions without prejudice.” What does accepting humanity without prejudice mean to you?

In this new series of paintings, I mostly wanted to explore the idea of dropping reservations in exploring where we each came from and what makes up who we are culturally. I don’t find that environment too often which gives space and allows for this to happen. Without putting too many heavy parameters on the assignment, I came up with a pitch for the gallery that allowed each artist to pick up to 9 main themes that define cultural identity. I thought that we each would pick most of the 9, but what is written on paper came out very differently on canvass in color and paint. It made more sense for people to focus on 1 or 2 of the main themes and go from there. Lots of us picked Family of Origin to identify the country we came from as far back as is known, and also a Family Tree composition.  The other thing that ties all 7 paintings together was that each one needed to have 9 heads in the picture in some fashion. So it was 9 themes and 9 heads. Then we each worked on the other artist's paintings as was called for. But there is a painting for each person in the end.

What are you creating for the exhibition and how does it fit into that narrative?

I have also included 4 of my solo works, made from found objects which I painted upon.  I included something from my drinking series, world peace series, guitar series, and my shoe fetish series (laughs).  I naturally find working with found objects very telling of the time and place from which they come. These works become very narrative and comment on things I’m experiencing around me.

Is there a dream project that you’d like to manifest in the future?

I would love to continue doing public art projects with my art band and with other communities at any given location.  Having sponsorships to go to new places and make art with the locals and then have it on display can transform the culture very quickly and it is something that nobody ever forgets.  All of our projects in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles would benefit from sponsorships, which then create the physical spaces and the teams for these types of cultural defining moments.  I’m interested in making these dreams a reality.

Written by: Emily Blanton
Photography: Alex Diana, Steven Bollman

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