Meet: Tom Franco
Renaissance man sparks life into the East Bay art scene.
Tom Franco is describing the schedule he’s kept over the last week, and it’s taking a while. The founder and codirector of Berkeley’s Firehouse Art Collective has been prepping for a show at his gallery on Shattuck Avenue, conducting an interview for a sculpting podcast, overseeing the renovation of several artist lofts and studios at his South Berkeley complex, and painting a mural at his Gilman Street location. “I like to stay busy, and I like to stay creative,” Franco says. “I think it’s also because I’m turning 32. This just seems like the natural time to create something for the community that everyone can benefit from. It’s sort of biological: I feel like, ‘I really should be doing something right now!’ ”
With that, Franco unleashes a full-body laugh loud enough to scare any stray birds from the rafters inside Emeryville’s Public Market, where the Firehouse collective—a nonprofit art cooperative that started in 2004—recently debuted its sixth space last February.
“He’s got the best laugh, doesn’t he?” asks John Toki, the respected Berkeley sculptor who taught Franco at California College of the Arts in Oakland. “Tom’s pretty unique in that he’s brought together a lot of young artists to make and show their artwork. No one knows how he does it; he’s like four men in one. He reminds me a little of [longtime San Francisco rock concert impresario] Bill Graham in how he’s able to bring all these different people together: He’s like an art-development renaissance man.”
Franco himself is more likely to turn to the example of legendary New York artist Andy Warhol, famous not just for his art but for the scene he cultivated with his “factory,” which consisted of artists in varied disciplines, including music and film. Likewise, the Firehouse collective consists of food artisans, dancers, and DJs—not just sculptors and painters.
“We’ll talk about Andy Warhol,” Franco says. “It’s not the same artwork that we’re making, but it’s the idea of having a band of artists. I just liked the impression of the scene that he created. It was so electric.”
Unlike Warhol, there’s not much art school cool to Franco. He makes a point of keeping his Firehouse spaces open and friendly to everyone in the community, from kids to grandparents. (Case in point: Most gallery openings and events are not dependent on alcohol, so they’re more family-friendly.) His stated goal for the collective is to make art less isolated, more accessible, and open to the community, with the idea of creating a self-sustainable model that can support and nurture artists.
“After I graduated from art school, there was a sense that art is this dead-end road: It veers off from the mainstream of our culture so you end up being this outcast. We want to redefine how [people] think about artists. They’re not these drugged out, radical, dangerous people: It could be your neighbor, or it could be you.”
Growing up in Palo Alto, Franco didn’t have to look far for artistic inspiration. Both of his parents studied art at Stanford University, came from artistic families, and encouraged everyday creativity in the house.
“In my family, you were never cool, you never had anything good to say, unless you were talking about art,” Franco says.
His parents found remarkably fertile ground in the three Franco boys. Oldest son James turned to theater in high school and quickly found mainstream success as an actor in blockbuster movies like Spider-Man and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as well as smaller, more creative roles playing actor James Dean and poet Allen Ginsberg. Youngest son Dave has followed James to Hollywood and recently scored a breakout role in this year’s remake of 21 Jump Street.
“My husband and I definitely encouraged creativity,” recalls matriarch Betsy Franco, an author. “We didn’t force it down their throats, but we would always encourage imaginative play just by having stuff around and being very open-minded and receptive to anything creative that they did. I have a belief that everyone has creativity: My kids maybe just have quite a bit of it.”
It wasn’t always easy (“Three brothers? Oh my God, it was like living with three bear cubs,” Betsy says), but each son managed to find his own creative path. Unlike his brothers, Tom, whom his mother describes as perhaps the freest spirit of the bunch, quickly gravitated to visual arts. His mother remembers a preteen Tom crafting whimsical creatures out of Plasticine that would make her laugh and gathering objects off of the street to use in his sculpture.
“Tom has been listening to his own drummer since he was born. He really knew what he wanted to do from the get-go, and he stuck to that very stubbornly.”
For his part, Tom is clearly deeply influenced by his family. His father, Doug, a sporadically successful philanthropic entrepreneur, provided both hands-on and moral support: “Even though he wasn’t doing art himself, he was always doing creative things, and he was always encouraging me, saying, ‘You should do it; you should do it!’ ” says Tom. (Doug passed away suddenly in 2011, but only after getting back into art in the last year of his life: Tom put on a posthumous show of his father’s drawings earlier this year at his Firehouse North gallery.) With Betsy, an author with more than 80 children’s and young adult books to her credit, Tom had a real-life lesson of someone finding practical application for artistic skills. “My mother actually made a living from it, and she still does, which is quite amazing. She more or less raised the family off of her writing.”
Tom has also drawn inspiration from his famous older brother (to whom he bears a striking resemblance from certain angles). “Growing up, James was completely driven in the way he is now, a total overachiever, overworker … I learned a lot from him: just never saying no, always doing it, and the success that comes from that.”
He also admits that both his brothers’ very public successes have motivated him in his own career in a way that anyone with siblings can understand. “As far as motivating myself and stretching myself, for sure it’s a factor,” he says, with a smile. “They have a high success rate, so I need to have something to talk about at the family gatherings.”
The three brothers and their mom remain close, even finding time to collaborate. Tom illustrated Betsy’s 2009 novel Metamorphosis, Junior Year, while James and Dave narrate the book’s audio version.
Tom Franco’s path to the art world moved in a more or less straight line from high school, when he took a class taught by Bill Iaculla. The Palo Alto sculptor, who emphasizes using found objects in addition to clay, had a strong influence on Franco’s own eclectic work, which has a funky, whimsical, folk art feel to it. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz (“I think I went there because it was so beautiful”), he attended CCA in Oakland, where he majored in ceramics.
It was at art school that Franco’s philosophy of collaborative, community-based art blossomed. Recalls Alan Chin, an internationally known artist who attended CCA at the same time: “In art, people can be really closed and shut out, but Tom was always collaborating with undergrads and graduates and professors, from sculpture, to singing, to making music on overturned trash cans: He brought that kind of spontaneous energy. He was one of the major spirits at that school.”
After leaving CCA, Franco got together with some fellow students to rent space in Berkeley’s Lauren district. “We thought we would at least have a common studio, so we found this raggedy old building which was the only thing we could afford. It took a lot of repairs—and we’re still repairing it eight years later—but it started as apartments and studios, and it’s taken off from there.”
Many of the original members have since split off, but Franco kept the collective going, refining his mission of working collaboratively with a common goal, and the Firehouse has steadily expanded. One major factor in its growth has been Julia Lazar, the collective’s codirector and Franco’s girlfriend, whom he met at a meditation retreat and later got to know better as comember of an avant-garde dance troupe. (Dance is one of the interests on a seemingly endless list that Franco has dabbled in over the years, including meditation, martial arts, guitar, Tai Chi, and kombucha making.)
The two were longtime friends, dancing together as members of the San Francisco–based troupe for more than six years, before they started dating. Lazar, who has a background in visual and culinary arts, has been instrumental in filling in the details in Franco’s master vision. (“I’m the plower, and she’s the plugger,” he says.) Lazar has also focused on marketing the Firehouse to the outside world. She was the first point of contact for Lafayette-based Main Street Properties, the developer that tapped Firehouse to be part of its projects at Gilman Street and the Emeryville Public Market, considerably expanding Firehouse’s profile.
“We wanted someone who would bring in a lot of energy and help bring the community together at these projects, and Firehouse has done a great job of that,” says Main Street’s Steve Mesita. “I’ve rarely seen anyone grow so quickly.”
As the collective has grown—it now consists of about 75 artists and outside artisan vendors—so has its mission. The original goal was simple: “I wanted a place to get my art out there because no one else is going to show it; it’s too weird,” Franco laughs. (Actually, one of his pieces was included in this year’s Works in Nature, the California Shakespeare Theater’s popular curated art show.) The plans for the Emeryville space are more ambitious and will include not just art but “micro storefronts” that they hope to fill with the work of artists of various mediums, including a rotating space for food venders and an increased focus on music.
For now, Franco and Lazar plan to stabilize the various spaces they are running to make sure they are profitable and sustainable. After that? Who knows. The two are currently remodeling a new space they acquired recently in Uptown Oakland, and Franco says that he would like to expand his model to Los Angeles someday. For now, he’s just happy to be making a living in a field to which he has always known he wanted to devote his life.
“We talk a lot about this at the collective, where it’s like, ‘Wait, aren’t we supposed to be artists? We’re running around taking care of all these spaces like we’re building managers.’ But the way I see it is, this has to happen. There are hardly any niches out there that provide support for people to make their art. So we have to do that first, make that happen, and create space for us to be artists.”
For more information on the collective, go to firehouseartcollective.blogspot.com.