Philadelphia-born, Puerto Rican-descended ceramicist Roberto Lugo creates in-your-face, radical, hip–hop influenced pieces of pottery that confronts the whiteness of the art world. Whether it’s hand thrown teapots and urns featuring portraits of the Notorious B.I.G., stencils of the Black Panthers against a confederate flag, or a scathing self-portrait filled with the “self-loathing of an obese Latino,” each of Roberto’s pieces seems to ask: does it make you uncomfortable that I belong here too?
It’s not often you see a mash up of ancient pottery shapes and influences from graffiti and inner city life – and Lugo’s juxtaposition of classical ceramics and utterly modern critiques of racism and contemporary politics is getting him noticed. Selected as an Emerging Artist by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, his work has also been featured in national art magazines American Craft and Modern, the latter of which declared that he is “changing the world, one teapot at a time.” On the heels of his first solo exhibit at Philadelphia’s Wexler Gallery, we caught up with Lugo to hear about what shaped his practice, and how art can offer an opportunity to remake history.
“There are a lot of different ways that people historically have activated conversations; one of them is through protest,” says Lugo. “I’d like to think that art also brings the physical activity into the world, and it also complicates the conversation in a unique way—it hits people in a place that they don’t see coming.”
The self-described Ghetto Potter’s creative critiques of racism and the art world are not only reflected in his artwork but through his actions; he is a prison rights activist who raises funds to expunge the records of those who have served time in juvenile hall; he’s an art educator; and at Marlboro College in Vermont, where he currently teaches, he is part of a committee that does outreach and provides financial aid to low-income people of color.
It is all part of his commitment to offer young people of color an opportunity to recast, remold, and re-envision the future – a commitment born of his own experience growing up in what Art Blog describes as “a series of burned out and damaged homes” in Kensington, Philadelphia.
“Being raised in the 80s in Philadelphia I was exposed to prevalent drug use and gang activity,” Lugo says. “The crack epidemic left half of the houses in my neighborhood abandoned. This neighborhood gave very little hope for a future outside of its boundaries. My parents were the first generation of my family to raise their children in the United States.”
Lugo took up graffiti while in high school, but it was in his community college art classes where he first glimpsed a way to express a future beyond the oppressiveness of current social structures. A chance encounter with the pottery wheel soon turned into 15 hour days making pots and other ceramics, and a newfound vocation. But even though today he commands thousands of dollars for his art pieces, he holds tightly to his roots.
“I was really privileged to be able to go to a school for art, and I didn’t want to let go of the fact that I had to overcome all of these barriers,” he says. “Those barriers were really tangible things around me,” including the incarceration of his brother, an experience he emotionally described in a speech at the 2015 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference.
Today, Lugo is involved in a program called the Clay Mobile that brings clay, tools, and teachers to juvenile incarceration establishments and teaches students how to make pottery. Describing his goals with the program, Lugo says, “I think that people underestimate how aware and intelligent these children are. A lot of the time, kids are really aware that people are just volunteering or creating these programs so that they stay quiet and non-violent for as long as they can. In my case, I was teaching them that, you know, you have so many more opportunities once this is over, and art can be one of them. You can use your life experiences to really tell a story, connect with people, and really make a living.”
This is exactly what Lugo has done, created an opportunity for himself in the arts where you would least expect it. As a teacher at a small liberal arts school called Marlboro College in Vermont, Roberto brings a much-needed perspective to a very white school, in one of the whitest states in America. “I wanted to be in a place where I can see progress can be made, in a place that doesn’t have diversity— but really does have the desire to become more racially diverse,” he explained.
At Marlboro, Lugo has found a place where he can make an impact and his art is appreciated. He hopes that when other students of color and visual artists see him, they realize that a career in the visual arts is not impossible, and that they have a hand in shaping this reality.
“My background has a lot to do with the reason that I’m successful today. And so, the fact that we don’t have a lot of people of color in the visual arts in some way has given me opportunities that not a lot of white people have. Which is so unique to the field, because there is so very little of it. And so, my hope is, that my artwork won’t be unique one day, because we’ll have so many people that add and complicate the visual arts and ceramics that I will just seem like a run of the mill artist, because a lot of people will be making work about it.”
Even if this vision comes to pass, I still think Lugo’s work will stand out— because his pottery is made with an urgency and sensitivity that is timeless. Like the Woody Guthrie quote that Lugo has adopted as his own on his potter’s wheel: “This machine kills hate.” Lugo’s art is killing what divides us, one ceramic at a time.