Sculpted Over Time

How ceramic artist Frank Matranga took the wheel
and never looked back.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Katrina Zawojski

Arriving at a house with a mailbox made of clay, I knew this must be the resi-dence of my Mr. Potter. Though he may not be a wizard of Harry’s kind, Frank Matranga can certainly create pottery magic with his hands.

As a kid, he made all the toys for the kids in his neighborhood, using tools from his father’s workshop. He was crafty with the #2 pencil, a skill that later got him     transferred from the Army’s artillery center to working as an illustrator for the officer’s can-didate school.

For those next two years, Frank was at the drawing board creating graphical work—even paintings of Russian uniforms for the benefit of student soldiers. He was headed in the direction of becoming a graphic artist, unaware that a career in clay would be his ultimate calling.

“If I think I have even the slightest chance of doing something, I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I can do that,’” he shares. “Immediately after, I think to myself, ‘How can I do that?’”

This style of logic may scream overconfidence or even recklessness, but Frank knows no other way. Once he grasps an understanding of what he’s getting himself into, he goes for it. So when Frank was approached to fill in for a teaching position in ceramics, he said (you guessed it) “yes.” But had he handled clay before? No.

“The first time I fired by kiln, I burned everything up,” Frank recalls. “I didn’t know you had to let the pieces dry first.” While teaching high schoolers by day, he attended a class for himself by night. Frank’s craftsmanship showed great promise, and with a convincing nudge from his instructor, he changed his major from design to ceramics. He also ended up teaching that ceramics class for the next 20 years.

At his home in Manhattan Beach, a space that also doubles as his studio, Frank continues to shape and glaze the medium that he grew to love. “I like the purity of porcelain and the gutsiness of stoneware,” he describes.

Instead of a vegetable garden in his backyard, Frank created a sculpture garden—a whimsical alternative to the decorative and utilitarian pieces in and surrounding his house. The “alarmists,” as he calls these creations—pirates, lawyers, samurai warriors and football players, all come to life as if to say, “The sky is falling!”

Half the fun for Frank is experimenting with color combinations, glazes, techniques and temperatures, which is why he travels around town with either his digital camera or sketchpad so he can recall what inspired him when it’s time to create back in his studio.

Putting his talents to practice on a new project


Frank in his studio


“I find inspiration everywhere,” he says. “Nature, the ocean. Back in the day, I used to work up a sweat and then cool off with a swim in the water or a bike ride down The Strand.”

As a member of the TWIGS (a group of six artists who broke off from a branch of the Hermosa Art Group), Frank enjoys discussions on everything current in the art world. “We like our small number, because we can all fit in the ‘TWIG-mobile,’ a 1960s Volkswagen bus we travel in when driving around Los Angeles.”

In addition to pulling inspiration locally, Frank’s trip during the late 1970s to Japan is still a strong source of influence. He spent five years working alongside young Japanese potters and being repeatedly stopped on the street by locals. “When you’re a potter in Japan, you’re a big deal,” he says. His rich experience in Japan is celebrated and reflected in his work as well as in his home.


The range of Frank’s work on display


Out of all the pieces he has made and sculpted, including clay murals that bear his signature, Matranga still prefers those commissions made public. “Creating a mural for a library wall is exciting because everyone has to walk in and see it,” he shares.

Inspired by both his native California and learned Japanese culture, Frank won’t stop ordering clay by the ton any time soon. “Nobody ever retires as an artist,” he says. “You can’t.”