New Day for Art Ware With Earthy Origins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1933, John Frank, equipped with one small kiln, a butter churn for mixing clay and fruit jars for storing glazes, began a pottery studio in a burned-out garage in Norman, Okla. He and his wife, Grace Lee, first created sculptures and vases made from Oklahoma clay and by 1942 were making everyday tableware with artistic designs. Their unpretentious, earthy and affordable Frankoma Pottery became wildly popular then and is in demand today as collectible Americana.

Frankoma Pottery is now owned by Maryland investor Richard Bernstein, but the Franks' daughters are carrying on the tradition. Four years ago, Joniece Frank and Donna Frank, both in their 60s, set up a makeshift studio at the back of their house in Sapulpa, Okla., where their parents lived until John's death in 1973 and Grace Lee's in 1996.

Equipped with two small, donated kilns, a secondhand homemade clay mixer and Mason jars for mixing store-bought glazes, the sisters started Frank X 2. They turned the garage into a multipurpose kiln/stock/packaging room for their fledgling business.

Talk about coming full circle.

Then again, clay runs in the family, Donna explained. The sisters learned to love clay from their father and mother. That passion is found among the many collectors of Frankoma Pottery and Frank X 2. An original Frankoma piece can cost hundreds of dollars; a Frank X 2 item can cost between $15 to $75. The pottery, collectors say, is irresistible. They get hooked by what could be summed up as the Frank touch.

"I remember the first piece I bought to give to someone who collected pottery. I found a very earthy piece--a Guernsey pitcher," recalled Jack L. Kish, project management assistant at the Getty Museum, who picked up that one piece in 1995.

"Frankoma is tactile," said Kish, who now owns about 175 pieces. "You purchase a piece, you can pick it up, feel the texture, the smoothness of the glaze and realize it was created by an artist for only a particular period of time. I am pretty passionate about this."

Donna says her father wanted everyone, including those of modest means, to be able to live with "good art." He combined art with everyday practicality and called it "art ware."

Frankoma is an earthenware art pottery that depicted Southwestern subjects such as a wagon-wheel pattern on dinnerware (no longer in production). Then there is John Frank's Plainsman pattern of dinnerware (still in production). He also made vases in the shape of, for example, cowboy boots. He depicted wildlife, such as the puma, in sculptures.

According to Donna, her dad was the only commercial potterer to perfect the one-fire process. The two-fire process is the most common. Buyers say they are especially attracted to Frank's glazes, such as Prairie Green. They talk with the same passion about Frankoma as do collectors of other regional tableware, such as Bauer pottery.

Margaret Roach, garden editor of Martha Stewart Living in New York, said that some 12 years ago, she spotted a green mug at a flea market on the West Side. "I didn't know what it was. I just knew it was a green that really spoke to me--that beautiful green with brown mottling. As a gardener, I really related to it."

You hear that kind of talk from Frankomaphiles. A piece speaks to them. Roach added that "Frankoma is a poor man's art pottery." The affordability lent itself, she laughed, to gluttonous buying. Roach now has 200 pieces, all in a green glaze, of course.

Frankoma purists put the cutoff date for collectibles at 1991, the last year the Frank family produced the pottery. Frankoma is still available at a few stores and on the Frankoma Pottery site, at http://www.frankoma.com. Frank X 2 has its own Web site: http://www.frankoma.net/frankX2.html.

EBay carries roughly 1,500 pieces of Frankoma on any given day. That's where Sacramento retailer Rodney Ping discovered Frank X 2. He said he was intrigued enough by a Frankoma snail bud vase that he bought at an estate sale in August to start learning more about the pottery when he spotted an item produced by the Frank daughters for sale on EBay.

Ping tracked them down and put in an order--the sisters' first major one--for their designs, which include animal figurines and vases. For starters, Ping is going to sell their wares right next to their dad's at two Sacramento area antique malls.

Their business may be fledgling, but the Frank sisters are well versed in the pottery business. Joniece had been chief operating officer and president of Frankoma Pottery for 20 years until the family business was sold in 1991. The business, according to Donna, never recuperated after the factory burned down in 1983 and faced increasing competition from mass merchandisers such as Kmart.

Donna said, "Dad encouraged everyone to smile when they worked in the production of the pieces. He would say that clay is a living thing--just like human beings. It carries the vibrations of everybody who touched it during its production. That's what Frank X 2 does. That's why people are attracted to our creations. Because it holds the love of the creators."

The sisters have their own Frankoma collection--300 pieces, dating to 1928--displayed throughout their home, even on the beams. One of the oldest pieces is the "engagement vase," which John Frank gave to Grace Lee because he couldn't afford a ring.

The Frank X 2 art ware ranges from whimsical figurines called "biliken" (a lucky charm) to vases such as "The Siren" and "Chase Vase" with a mermaid, merman and dolphins chasing each other.

Kish of Getty had written an article on "the biliken" for the Pot & Puma, a newsletter for members of the Frankoma Family Collectors Assn. He said, "To thank me, Donna gave me the first miniature biliken that was made by Frank X 2. Because of the sincerity and what was meant by the giving, that piece means more to me than any other piece in my collection."

Until recently, their business relied mainly on word-of-mouth advertising. Goods were shown and sold by appointment only at the house. The sisters box orders and leave them outside their front door for the mail carrier to pick up. They display their wares once a year at the Frankoma Family Collectors Assn. "family" reunion in Sapulpa.

As Donna pointed out, "We are not spring chickens, so what little we have produced--we don't mass produce our pieces--by the time we pass away, they are going to be collectible."

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