“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, New Jersey, 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," he explained. "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. 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.”
Click here for the complete story, courtesy of Amy Milgrub Marshall.