“When I sit at a potter’s wheel, I often think of my father’s bike tire spinning, and that metaphor has always had me reach for more.”
That excerpt from Roberto Lugo’s website sums up his life and career so far—always reaching for more. A 2014 M.F.A. alumnus of the Penn State School of Visual Arts, Lugo is an award-winning potter, spoken-word poet, activist, and educator who has committed his career to showing others how they can rise out of adversity.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Lugo never saw a career in the arts in his future. In fact, it was hard for him to even envision a life beyond the down-and-out neighborhood of Kensington, where he lived with his first-generation Puerto Rican immigrant parents. His dad rode his bike from Kensington—where drugs and gangs were rampant—to a job in Cherry Hill, N.J., every morning, to provide for his family the best he could. “If he could make that sacrifice for my future, it is up to me to make something of it,” said Lugo.
And make something he has—literally and figuratively. Lugo, known for his politically charged ceramic vessels, was recently named the 2016 United States Artists Barr Fellow, a $50,000 award that recognizes him as one of America’s most accomplished and innovative artists.
Currently a professor of ceramics at Marlboro College in Vermont, he is also a frequent speaker at high schools, colleges, and art centers around the country, sharing his story and advocating for ceramics as an important tool in understanding history and culture.
“Ceramics crosses many different disciplines. It’s almost like an ethnographic tool to tell us what people were doing thousands of years ago—what they were using to eat, what they valued,” he explained. “When I lecture, I connect that to the importance of what I do today.”
Lugo creates teapots and other ceramic pieces that serve as “blank vignettes,” providing a surface on which he paints patterns and people, ranging from historical figures to pop culture icons to even himself.
“I don’t decide who is going to go on a pot until the very last portion … I give myself time while I’m making to think about who I want to go on there and why,” he explained. “If I do something political, then I will also include something humorous.”
A recent example is a teapot that includes abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth on one side, and Wu Tang Clan founder Ol’ Dirty Bastard—known for his legal troubles along with his music—on the other. “Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s values and culture are exactly the opposite of Sojourner Truth—he was at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of hip hop,” said Lugo. “But he was my first experience with blending of cultures, through his music. I try to complicate a conversation by painting people who would not normally be together.”
Lugo calls himself a “ghetto potter,” but not just because he grew up in the ghetto. “The word ‘ghetto’ can be seen as a negative, but I equate ‘ghetto’ with the word ‘resourceful,’” he wrote in the artist statement on his website. “Although my history is filled with adversity, racism, and sheer bad luck, I celebrate these moments in my work. I could not make art without the experiences they have offered to me.”
Lugo began his art career on the streets, painting graffiti in alleyways—“in places people wouldn’t care about,” he noted.
“It’s a renegade, guerrilla activity, and you have to have guts to do it,” he said. “It trains you to have a mindset of ‘I’ll show them.’”
That mindset has served Lugo well. After graduating from high school, he escaped Kensington and moved to Florida, where he enrolled in community college. He began taking art classes, and soon began working in pottery.
“Pottery seduced me because I felt like I shouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “It felt like something I couldn’t afford, something that was too fragile, too expensive.”
Lugo’s ability to create pottery gave him a sense of power, something he said he had been missing for most of his life. “I love the ability to make things and have control over them—when I started making pots, that was a real power that was handed down to me that I really fell in love with,” he explained. “Once I started making clay objects, it gave me the agency I had been looking for my entire life. It filled a gap that needed to be filled.”
Lugo combined that feeling of power with ambition—always reaching for more—and pursued a B.F.A. in ceramics at Kansas City Art Institute, graduating in spring 2012. He began to gain recognition for his work while still an undergraduate. When he was applying to grad schools, SoVA faculty member Shannon Goff reached out and encouraged him to apply to Penn State.
“Shannon was the first person to understand my work in instinctive ways,” he explained. “And when I got to Penn State, I met other faculty members—like Liz Quackenbush and Chris Staley—who gave me the confidence to see the value in my work and continue to challenge myself.”
Soon after graduating from Penn State in 2014, Lugo was selected as an Emerging Artist for the National Council on Education in Ceramic Arts 2015 conference. His talk about how pottery saved his life, part spoken-word performance and part sermon, brought the crowd of nearly 5,000 attendees to its feet.
Lugo’s story, and his ability to share that story in a way that is both inspiring and insightful, makes him a coveted speaker and teacher, not just at high schools and colleges, but also among diverse audiences, often from neighborhoods similar to the one where he grew up. This past summer, he taught pottery classes to teens in a juvenile justice program in Philadelphia.
“It was great because I came from where they came from. I helped them see a career in the arts was within their reach.”
Lugo said he views his artistic practice “as egalitarian as I wish the world to be.”
“Right now I’m selling work to individuals and working with curators who have millions of dollars—and at the same time I’m working with kids who were incarcerated, who were given little chance of succeeding,” he said. “The more my work extends to both those places, the more I learn, and the more I will get my work to places where it’s most effective, where it’s helping students of color and those from poor neighborhoods.”
Lugo is represented by Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia, located just blocks from his old neighborhood. He will return to Penn State this spring, as a speaker in the Penn State Forum series. His presentation is Tuesday, April 11, at 11:30 a.m. in the Nittany Lion Inn Ballroom. For more information and tickets, visit http://sites.psu.edu/forum/.
-Amy Milgrub Marshall