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Frank Matranga has played many roles in life-student, serviceman, teacher-but the one he most identifies with is that of artist. In almost 50 years spent as a professional potter, Matranga has seen his ceramic murals adorn buildings throughout his native Los Angeles, Calif.; he’s exhibited in one-man shows and larger arts conventions on three continents; and he’s spent months at a time working abroad. Impressive as his resume may be, though, the 73-year-old shows no sign of slowing down.
“Being a potter is a constant battle,” Matranga says. “You can’t just rest on your laurels. You have to keep at it.”
Early YearsAs is the case with many creative people, the path Frank Matranga took to his true calling was a winding one. In 1954, after two years at Pasadena City College, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Two years later, Matranga used the G.I. Bill to attend L.A. State College (now known as California State University Los Angeles), where his studies would lead to a degree in fine arts and a teaching credential.
Upon graduation, however, the only employment Matranga could find was as a ceramics teacher at a high school in Whittier, Calif. Though he didn’t know much about ceramics, Matranga bluffed his way through the interview, got the job and quickly enrolled in a six-week ceramics crash course at the Chounard Art Institute, where he studied under teachers Vivica and Otto Heino. And that’s when fate stepped in.
“Near the end of the semester I spent at Chounard, I really started to get into ceramics, and I thought, ‘Hey, this is where I belong,’” Matranga says. “All of a sudden, I realized that I’d always been a craftsman. As a child, I was always making things out of wood, always making toys and knives for all the kids in my neighborhood. So I decided to change the focus of my continuing education from design to ceramics.”
Matranga’s teaching career began in September 1957. Though he would only teach high school for four years, he took a position at Los Angeles Harbor Junior College in 1961 with the understanding that the assignment would be short-term. However, when the teacher he was hired to substitute for returned from her leave reluctant to teach ceramics anymore, the job was Matranga’s to keep. And keep it he did-for another 20 years.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, for the young Frank Matranga still had plenty of learning to do himself in the late fifties and early sixties.
In 1959, Matranga earned a master’s degree in ceramics from L.A. State. He credits an instructor named Ken Starbird with turning him into a potter, and notes that the end of his education at L.A. State coincided with his first success as an artist: that same year, one of Matranga’s pieces won Honorable Mention at the California State Fair’s annual art competition.
Matranga spent the last of his G.I. Bill money on a year of post-graduate work at the University of Southern California, where he studied under Carlton Ball and Susan Peterson, both prominent potters and teachers. He also began a two-year apprenticeship with a well-known L.A.-based potter named Raul Coronel. Unbeknownst to Matranga, the weeks and months spent throwing large pots for planters and studying Coronel’s mural-making techniques would pay dividends in the future.
Around the time of his employment with Coronel, Matranga began getting his own work displayed in regional art exhibitions. And when the Los Angeles Harbor College teaching opportunity came along, he decided it was time to strike out on his own. Matranga opened his own studio in 1961, but it would take another decade of hard work before he really started to make a name for himself.
Works, Progress“I think what probably made me successful is my creative and persistent attitude,” Matranga says of his first years as a professional potter. “And I was perfectly willing to suffer through the lean times.”
Finding the right balance between his teaching duties and his own studio time also helped Matranga through his initial struggles. Add to that active participation in local arts organizations (Matranga is a former president of the American Ceramic Society’s Southern California branch), and one begins to see the outline of an artist primed for success.
Matranga’s first big break came in 1970 when one of his students encouraged him to submit a proposal for some mural work that his architecture firm needed done on the exterior of a Sears & Roebuck store it was building in Escondido, Calif. Impressed with his samples, the firm gave Matranga a $92,000 commission for what would eventually become seven 20 x 30-ft murals detailing the history of San Diego. And though the job took a year and over $72,000 to complete, Matranga was hardly the starving artist of his youth when it was over; his profit from the Escondido job paid not only for the house he lives in today but the classic Porsche that resides in his studio.
Despite the material perks, Matranga concedes that it was the experience he gained through his first large project that benefited him most. “That job was a big one,” he says. “I saw all the problems. I really knew how to do murals after that job.”
In 1971, Matranga was commissioned by the City of Los Angeles to create a mural for the entranceway of the La Canada City Library. Happy with result of this first venture, the city would subsequently contract Matranga for library murals in Marina Del Rey (1973), West Gardena (1974), Baldwin Hills (1976), Diamond Bar (1977) and Laverne (1984). Matranga must have been equally pleased, because he still counts these murals among his favorite works.
“Doing the Sears murals and the libraries in Los Angeles meant my work got out there,” he says. “People saw it, and that was one of the best opportunities I’ve had to show my craftsmanship in clay.”
Turning JapaneseIn 1977, a mutual friend introduced Matranga to a Japanese potter named Chico Shibuya who was so taken with Matranga’s art that he invited him to move to Japan and work out of his studio. Though he initially dismissed this as polite flattery, Shibuya persisted, and Matranga soon found himself trading his life in the States for five months as an artist in residence in Yokohama, Japan.
To hear him describe it, Matranga’s immersion in Japanese culture was something akin to a spiritual awakening. “It was just a wonderful experience,” he says. “To a potter, Japan is the place to go because the Japanese love pottery. That’s their main thing: the love of handcrafted pottery. It was just an amazing experience.”
“In Japan, when you walk down the street and you’re a potter, people know who you are and they want to talk to you,” Matranga says of his time spent in the Far East. “The exposure to ceramics is immense throughout Japan, as there are so many pottery villages. I think the Japanese are taught more to appreciate aesthetics than people in this country.”
Full Circle, Full SteamThese days, with his teaching career well behind him, Frank Matranga spends his time working out of a 400-sq-ft studio space that he and his brother built behind his home in the early seventies. With three kilns, two potter’s wheels and literally tons of clay at his disposal, Matranga has everything he needs to keep up with the demand that still exists for his work.
In addition to the three major exhibitions he mounts each year, Matranga continues to land commissions for mural work in the public and private sectors. (He recently completed his 56th mural, a 28 x 10 ft ceramic wall sculpture that took over four months to design, build and install.) And in the quiet times between big projects, there’s always plenty of pottery to be made. The cups, the vases, the bowls-the effective beginnings of a life in ceramics come full circle.
The thing about circles, though, is they have no end. Frank Matranga must know this because-even at 73 years old-he still gives the impression of a person with worlds yet to conquer.
“As you develop as an artist, you start pushing boundaries,” he says. “I’m doing that now: pushing boundaries, trying new things and really having a lot of fun with it.”
For more information on Frank Matranga, visit www.matrangastudios.com.
SIDEBAR: Matranga On...Art Fairs: “Pure art fairs are few and far between. Cities say, ‘We can make money by selling more display booths,’ so there are more and more people and more and more booths, and you have people painting doilies and selling children’s clothing, and all of a sudden the fact that you’re supposed to be at an art fair has gone out the window. That’s why I won’t do art fairs anymore. But I made my living off of them for a long time.”
Being an Artist: “To be an artist of any kind, you have to constantly have your name out there. You’re convincing people that they should look at your work or give you an exhibition and buy your work. So you just can’t sit back and relax and let things come to you. And if you’re very, very lucky, you might get a break somewhere along the line where somebody important sees your work, likes it and says, ‘This is good.’”
SIDEBAR: Escondido Murals: A PostscriptIn the mid 1990s, three of the seven murals that Frank Matranga designed for Sears & Roebuck were destroyed when Sears moved out of its Escondido, Calif., building and the Federal Employees’ Distributing Co. (Fedco) moved in. When Fedco subsequently went out of business, the building sat vacant until it was bought in 2000 by Home Depot. A short time later, Matranga got word that Home Depot planned to destroy everything associated with the property-his four remaining murals included.
Frightened by the prospect of losing all of his Sears & Roebuck works, Matranga traveled south to Escondido and proceeded to whip the local news media into a frenzy. The resulting protest was successful: Home Depot agreed to not do anything to the building until the murals were removed. But who would pay for their removal?
As it happened, a local architect liked the remaining murals so much that he agreed to buy them from Home Depot’s holding company for $1.00 each, though he spent another $20,000 having the murals’ tiles removed one by one. Three of these murals eventually wound up on the architect’s own office building. The last was donated to the City of Escondido.