Roberto Lugo knows it’s not something you see every day in North Philadelphia: “Someone literally just asked, ‘Why is ch’yall going to do?’ And I said, ‘Throw some pottery,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ “
Lugo was born and raised in Kensington, a neighborhood nationally known for drugs, poverty and crime, not pottery. “They see this potter’s wheel and they stop, and I can teach them and put my hands on their hands. And what’s really amazing is to see the look in their eyes. The emotion I take away from me. of them is, like, ‘I can’t believe someone thinks I’m special enough to stop and teach me how to throw a pot.’ I just feel like it’s so rewarding to make people feel valued the way they should. ”
Lugo’s occasional sidewalk layout contrasts sharply with formal exhibits of his work at major art museums across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which will showcase his work this fall.
Each of her pieces is a modern take on classic teapots and ceramics depicting the faces of Lugo’s personal heroes, like Beyoncé, Nina Simone, and Stacey Abrams. Some works sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
Correspondent Serena Altschul asked, “I heard you say you were a ‘ghetto potter’. What does it mean?”
“I’ve never really heard of the word ‘ghetto’ used in the connotation that I think most people use until I leave,” he said. “For me, being a ghetto is where my life begins, and that’s where I get my creativity and my ingenuity. So I really want to represent it wherever I go.”
Lugo was brought up by what he describes as a tight-knit and hard-working Puerto Rican family. In his mid-twenties, he was introduced to ceramics at a community college, before earning a master’s degree from the Penn State School of Visual Arts.
He recalls: “I was in class and I saw all these people making teapots and cups. And I didn’t understand that, because I didn’t grow up drinking tea. And so, like, in my mind, if I can be frank, I was like, How much tea do white people drink, you know? Because there were only white people around me. And then after a while I thought to myself Well, wouldn’t it be interesting if, for example, I could connect with them by creating things that they understand, but then inserting things that they don’t understand?“
Like this play starring Abraham Lincoln, as Lugo first saw it – on a food coupon. “I remember being able to buy a hoagie in Philly with that,” he said. “I think a lot of my work has evolved into trying to communicate how someone like me sees things differently, so that we can be in conversation.”
It’s a conversation Lugo engages in as often as possible, most recently at the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania. There he transformed a temporary exhibition space, with the gallery’s formal portraits on one side and his own graffiti and pottery on the other.
The space presents what Lugo calls both sides of Philadelphia – a theme he personally knows too well.
Altschul asked, “Did you ever think, when you were in your early twenties and first touched a wheel, that it would end up here?” “
“No,” Lugo replied, becoming moved. “You know, honestly, I felt like I was probably going to end up in jail, or be killed, or whatever. And so what’s interesting is that even though I got to a certain level Of success, it never really looks like me. When I see my name in a museum, I feel like it’s a different person, and I have to move away from it. “
“Are the tears about it, making you feel like you still just don’t get one with the guy who’s crushing her now in the art world?”
“My success is really my mom’s success, you know, and how she had to make sure I stayed in high school. My dad’s hard work, like, he rode his bike from Philly to New Jersey every day just to start her job. I would say my family is where I feel, my success is truly ours. “
At 40, Roberto Lugo is not only an artist, but a husband and father of two children. He has shaped his success story and says he hopes to inspire others to shape theirs: “As I am a potter, what is implied is not that many other people should go and become potters; what is implied is that someone like me can be whatever they want and be successful.
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Story produced by Sara Kugel. Publisher: Chad Cardin.