Tom Franco at the exhibition "Pipe Brothers: Tom and James Franco" at the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center. Courtesy of the artist/the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center.

James Franco has historically plumbed Hollywood for inspiration for his divisive art. Now, he’s plumbing sewer pipes. The actor and artist is collaborating with his brother, artist Tom Franco, on a series of enormous painted ceramic sewer pipes for an exhibition at “Pipe Brothers: Tom and James Franco” at the Ceramics Research Center at the Arizona State University Art Museum.

The pipes, made from vitrified clay, come from Phoenix’s Mission Clay Products, which produces roughly 15,000 tons of clay pipes annually. The Franco brothers, who have collaborated on art exhibitions in the past, aren’t the first to repurpose the clay pipes to make art: The company has been running an Arts and Industry program for nearly 40 years.

“Pipe Brothers: Tom and James Franco,” at the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center. Courtesy of Deanna Dent/ASU Now.

“Artists come from all over the world and they can work in the Phoenix factory,” exhibition curator Garth Johnson told the local FOX affiliate. “They can carve, they can color, they can glaze, they can shape [the clay] any way that they want and then the factory fires them along with the rest of the pieces.”

The pipes are produced by a 50-foot-tall machine. Each one is seven and a half feet tall, weighing close to 750 pounds, and has to be handled with a forklift.

Tom Franco at Mission Clay with owner Bryan Vansell. Courtesy of Metric Cosmetics, and photographer Alex Diana.

Bay Area ceramicist John Toki, Mission Clay’s Art and Industry associate director and Tom Franco’s mentor, was the one who thought of the two brothers as potential participants in the program. “Tom Franco is an up-and-coming, dynamic Renaissance man who has tremendous drive and talent,” Toki told ASU Now. “He also has a unique artistic bent.”

Tom Franco is a mixed-media artist based in Oakland, California, where he founded the Firehouse Art Collective. He and other members of the collective began travelling to Arizona last summer to work at Mission Clay, making four trips over the course of the year.

Exhibit specialists Chris Miller and Stephen Johnson installing “Pipe Brothers: Tom and James Franco,” at the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center. Courtesy of Deanna Dent/ASU Now.

“There were so many firsts for me with the medium of clay—the size of the sculptures, working conditions, immersion in process,” said Tom Franco in a statement. “I’ve completely fallen into obsession with the cylindrical form; it’s like finding primal shape that we can’t live without.”

The work was not without its challenges, however. Arizona is extremely hot, and the artists had to work in a sauna-like room flooded with water to keep the clay wet. “We would just sweat all day long, doing 12- to 16-hour days on our feet. It gets pretty intense,” Tom Franco told the State Press.

Exhibit specialists Chris Miller and Stephen Johnson installing “Pipe Brothers: Tom and James Franco,” at the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center. Courtesy of Deanna Dent/ASU Now.

The Francos also had to the adapt to the unique brand of clay produced in-house 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,” Tom Franco added. “I’m seriously ripping out pieces, getting blisters.”

The resulting columnar works are quite durable. Sewer pipes are built to last hundreds of years making them well-suited for outdoor display. The Franco brothers created nine pieces for the exhibition—seven by Tom Franco and two by James Franco. Since James was not able to personally go to Arizona, his works were made for him according to his specifications.

Tom Franco at Mission Clay. Courtesy of Tom Franco, Metric Cosmetics, and photographer Alex Diana.

James Franco’s Harry depicts a carving of a large cat, while his second piece, Jimmy, features actor James Dean, a role he played in a 2001 television biopic. The show will travel to various venues before the sculptures eventually become public art.

“Pipe Brothers: Tom and James Franco” is on view at the Ceramics Research Center at the Arizona State University Art Museum,  699 S. Mill Ave., Suite 108, Tempe, Arizona, June 17–September 23, 2017.


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