Roberto Lugo

Roberto Lugo

Roberto Lugo (Born 1981 in Kensington, Philadelphia) is an American potter, social activist, spoken word poet, and educator. Lugo’s work draws together hip-hop, history, and politics into formal ceramics and 2D works. Lugo uses porcelain as his medium of choice, illuminating its aristocratic surface with imagery of poverty, inequality, and social and racial injustice.

Roberto Lugo’s Background

Artist Roberto Lugo - Artabys.com

The son of Puerto Rican parents, Roberto Lugo, was born in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood and began his artistic career as a graffiti artist before discovering the medium of ceramics.

In addition to having a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA from Penn State, Lugo works as an associate faculty member at Tyler School of Art. Mr. Lugo is an Assistant Professor of Art at Tyler School of Art, and he is the recipient of the Rome Prize for 2019. His one-of-a-kind creations have attracted national notice and have been featured in various exhibitions.

Roberto Lugo’s Childhood

Lugo was born in 1981 in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, the third child of young first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants. His parents were both teachers. Because he had been working in sugarcane fields in Puerto Rico since he was a toddler, his mother, Maribel Lugo, was 21 years old, and his father, Gilberto Lugo, a Pentecostal preacher, had just completed his middle school education at the time. The Lugo family grew up during a period in Philadelphia marked by widespread drug use and gang activity, as well as the abandonment of many neighborhood homes because of the crack epidemic. It was a difficult time for the family.

“When I sit at the potter’s wheel, I often think of my father’s bike tire spinning as he looked for better work opportunities in Cherry Hill, New Jersey,” says Lugo, who associates this act with his current work: “When I sit at the potter’s wheel, I often think of my father’s bike tire spinning as I look for more.” To support the family, his mother worked two to three part-time jobs besides caring for the three children.

Meanwhile, his parents toiled away but were impoverished and on the periphery of American culture, although Lugo was a timid youngster who was devoutly Catholic and spoke with a thick Spanish accent, and struggled to read, his parents were marginalized and on the periphery of American culture. Teachers refused to acknowledge his artistic abilities and even singled him out as a nuisance on a school field trip to a local prison in which he participated.

His teenage interests included grunge rock and hockey, in addition to the salsa, rap, and baseball that were popular among the neighborhood youngsters, who referred to him as “strange” or “trying to be white.” As an adult, he is a successful businessman. He didn’t have access to art at school, so he began drawing graffiti with his cousins on the streets of Philadelphia, partly to make himself more socially acceptable. It was with the graffiti tag “Robske” that he began his artistic career, which he has continued to use on all of his work and attributes to the beginning of his creative career: “I wouldn’t be doing the pottery that I do now if I hadn’t started doing graffiti when I was a teenager.”

As a young man, Lugo worked several factory jobs in Philadelphia until he went to South Florida with his family at the age of 22 in order to figure out what he wanted to achieve with his life. In his opinion, education was a viable option for earning a fair living, which is why he enrolled in a ceramics program at a local community college. It was explained to me that “genuine” art originated from my own personal experience.

He created items, such as a fire hydrant, that brought back fond memories of showering in the street with his father on evenings when the family’s water had been shut off for whatever reason. The first time he was ever told he was exceptional at something was when he was in elementary school, he recalls, adding that art-making quickly became his calling: “Right off the bat, it seemed significant.”

Roberto Lugo’s Early Education And Career

Ceramic Artist Roberto Lugo - Artabys.com
Ceramic Artist Roberto Lugo

He briefly attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007 before getting accepted into the ceramics arts program at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he earned a BFA in 2012.

He became fascinated by how pots communicate stories about ancient societies and began devouring ceramic history and anthropology. He discovered parallels to his own work in historical ceramics, such as how the lines of a leaf or flower on a Chinese pot resembled graffiti arrows and had the same fast, expressive nature as tagging. He may leave his mark on ceramics history and conversation by writing graffiti on his surfaces using china paint.

He also saw that minorities and people of color were underrepresented in the industry and that through his work, “I had the ability to advocate on behalf of people from where I come from.”

That sense of mission grew stronger when he enrolled in graduate school at Penn State University School of Visual Arts in 2012. At the same time, his brother was wrongfully convicted of a drug-related crime and sentenced to prison, according to Lugo.

He composed Oppression, a piece he regards to be one of his best while feeling sorrow, rage, and even remorse for his personal circumstances. The heads of two African-American males, Lugo, and his brother, are subjugated on a Victorian tea-cart, effectively functioning as saucers for dripping cups. (His sibling was later granted early release and is “doing incredibly well,” according to Lugo.)

When photographer Richard Ross contacted him to work on Juvenile In Justice, a show about imprisoned juveniles in Philadelphia in 2013, he became more intimately involved with incarceration. Ross, whose work involves shooting jailed youngsters, had traveled to Penn State to evaluate photography students.

Lugo stuffed pots into his backpack and waited for Ross outside the review room. The invitation to collaborate was then extended. The show was a watershed moment in Lugo’s career, following an artist residency he completed in Hungary through the Kansas City Art Institute. “I felt like I could achieve anything, and that my voice was a significant and necessary component of the ceramics community.”

Roberto Lugo’s Career

Lugo was called by a gallery in his birthplace, which is approximately four kilometers from Kensington’s ghettos. Wexler Gallery in Old City now represents Lugo, and they recently showed their first solo show together, titled Defacing Adversity: The Life and Times of Roberto Lugo, in June 2016. Defacing Adversity, like all of Lugo’s work, addresses issues of social justice, politics, race, and poverty through the medium of lavishly adorned historically themed ceramic shapes.

Lugo is bringing fresh conversations to the table of contemporary art by blending graffiti, hip hop, history, pop culture, and porcelain, with the backing of Wexler, a gallery that questions established art labels.

Lugo has been quite busy since his NCECA talk, in addition to developing work for solo exhibitions. He has undertaken many short-term residencies, including one at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia and another at Baltimore Clayworks, as well as providing lectures to budding ceramic artists and schools across the country and serving as a visiting artist in various locations.

He began teaching at Marlboro College in southern Vermont in 2015, where he is on the tenure track. “I wanted to be in a place where I could see progress being made, in a place where there is no diversity but a strong desire to become more racially diverse,” he added. He has participated in a number of shows, including SOFA Chicago and a solo show at Eutectic Gallery in Portland, Oregon.

Lugo is also involved in social justice in various arenas. He maintains a series of social media video diaries in which he speaks out on issues of race relations in the United States, diversity in the field, and urging future generations of artists to dare to be change agents. He has also donated to groups that promote social reform, such as The Democratic Cup. Lugo presently works as an Assistant Professor of Art at Tyler School of Art.

In 2009, Roberto Lugo married his wife, Ashley. Ashley Lugo is another artist from rural Alabama. They have two children, Theodore and Otto, who are frequently featured in Lugo’s social media feed and writings. Ashley is an active participant in Lugo’s studio practice. The family currently resides in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

The film “Without Wax,” directed by Cyrus Duff and produced by Edward Columbia, is expected to be released in the fall of 2019. “Past and present merge in this boundary-pushing cinematic documentary on world-renowned ceramics artist Roberto Lugo,” according to IMDB.

Roberto Lugo’s Style

Vengo Dal Ghetto Aoc Sculpture In Glazed Ceramic By Roberto Lugo
Vengo Dal Ghetto Aoc Sculpture In Glazed Ceramic By Roberto Lugo

Lugo’s art has been compared to Kehinde Wilde’s pictures of young people of color in heroic stances, often based on great historical paintings, and Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton’s presentation of the American Revolution with hip hop wigs and waistcoats among others. His forms frequently techniques reimagined and mimic antique ceramic patterns, particularly the Royal Worcester porcelain. Poverty, social and racial injustice are exposed when juxtaposed with traditionally beautiful china.

Lugo’s work strikes me as a multicultural mash-up of old European and Asian porcelain forms reimagined with a 21st-century street sensibility like a ghetto potter . The hand-painted surfaces blend old decorative patterns and themes found on bandanas with aspects of modern urban graffiti, various motifs combined, as well as startling images of people you might not expect to see on a type of ostentatious luxury item traditionally manufactured for the wealthy. I want to say his work is very much like decorative objects. Artwork sculpture that is decorative and intended to look attractive.

Faces are prominently framed by vivid patterns, typically in stark contrast, such as a Confederate flag encircling the faces of racial discrimination victims. Lugo’s work does not pull any punches, conveying harsh themes with deft brushstrokes. A modern twist on classic tea pots and ceramics depicting the faces of Lugo’s personal heroes and others, such as Sojourner Truth, Cornel West, Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman, Jimi Hendrix, Beyoncé, Nina Simone, Notorious BIG, Angry Mob, gun violence, Peaceful Protestors, New Slaves and Stacey Abrams, can be found in each of his works of art. Some of the artworks sell for tens of thousands of dollars or even more I am guessing mainly because these faces and depictions are historically absent from traditional art.

National Council on Education in Ceramic Arts

Lugo received notice in late 2014, after receiving his MFA from Penn State, that he had been selected as an Emerging Artist for the National Council on Education in Ceramic Arts 2015 conference, which will be held in Providence, Rhode Island. Lugo’s very personal speech, part spoken word performance, part sermon, enthralled the roughly 5,000-person audience.

His statement of how pottery saved his life, featuring an image of the phrase “This machine fights hate” painted onto his pottery wheel, drew a standing ovation from the audience. “I’d like to remove Roberto Lugo, the guy, from the equation for a moment. I am proud to be a part of a community that values and celebrates the things I just said.

We are a civilization with the potential to alter the world.” The video of that talk has approximately 20,000 views online, and Lugo has gotten over 100 emails from people who witnessed it in person or online, praising him and relaying similar experiences.

That sense of mission grew stronger when he enrolled in graduate school at Penn State University School of Visual Arts in 2012, at the same time his brother was wrongfully convicted of a drug-related crime and sentenced to prison, according to Lugo.

He composed Oppression, a piece he regards to be one of his best while feeling sorrow, rage, and even remorse for his personal circumstances. Lugo and his brother’s heads are subjugated on a Victorian teacart, effectively functioning as saucers for leaking cups. (His sibling was later granted early release and is “doing incredibly well,” according to Lugo.)

When photographer Richard Ross contacted him to work on Juvenile In Justice, a show about imprisoned juveniles in Philadelphia in 2013, he became more intimately involved with incarceration. Ross, whose work involves shooting jailed youngsters, had traveled to Penn State to evaluate photography students.

Lugo stuffed pots into his backpack and waited for Ross outside the review room. The invitation to collaborate was then extended. The show was a watershed moment in Lugo’s career, following an artist residency he completed in Hungary through the Kansas City Art Institute. “I felt like I could achieve anything, and that my voice was a significant and necessary component of the ceramics community.”

Exhibitions – Te traigo mi le lo lai (I Bring You My Joy)

Roberto’s work has been shown at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, among other places. He has received multiple honors, including a 2019 Pew Fellowship, the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Rome Prize, and the US Artist Award.

His work and numerous awards can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Ross Gallery, Fairfield University Art Museum, Currier Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The High Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Brooklyn Museum, University of Pennsylvania “God Complex: Different Philadelphia,” Show, the Walters Art Museum, and many other institutions. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture.

Definitions

Enamel Paint

Enamel paint is a type of paint that dries to a hard, usually glossy finish and is used for coating surfaces that are exposed to harsh weather conditions or temperature fluctuations. It should not be confused with decorated objects in “painted enamel,” which are made by applying vitreous enamel with brushes and firing them in a kiln.

Acrylic Paint

A fast-drying paint comprised of pigment suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion and other additives such as plasticizers, silicon oils, defoamers, stabilizers, or metal soaps, acrylic paint is also known as acrylic polymer emulsion. The majority of acrylic paints are water-based, but as they dry, they become water-resistant.

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