Los Angeles-based potter Frank Matranga approaches 50 years in the ceramics business.
Potter Frank Matranga at work in his studio.
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.”
As 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
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
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
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
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.
Matranga's mural at the West Gardena library.
“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
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
“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.”
Steps in the mural-making process, from design...
In 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 1979, Matranga returned to Japan for
another five months. Highlights of this trip include two solo exhibitions in Tokyo and a featured spot
on Japanese television. Matranga and his wife, Casey, were also invited to join
British potter Janet Leach (wife of famed studio potter and art teacher Bernard
Leach) for tea while she was in Kyoto
for an exhibition of her own work.
“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 Steam
These 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
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 Postscript
In 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.