His first art was graffiti. Now his pottery is in the Met.


This article is part of our last Fine Arts & Exhibitions special report, on how artistic institutions help the public to discover new options for the future.

Several times while studying art, and later as a ceramist, Roberto Lugo was told that he was out of place or that his work was not worthy of attention.

“Normally people don’t watch me walk down the street and say to themselves, ‘Oh, he’s definitely a potter,’” Mr. Lugo said, laughing during a video call. He was in his car because it was a quiet place to talk, and he was wearing a tank top that revealed many elaborate tattoos of his own design.

But there was frustration and sadness in his statement.

“I think how difficult it was for me as a Puerto Rican to go to college for ceramics,” said Mr. Lugo, who attended the Kansas City Art Institute in his twenties. “Every day people would stop me and ask me if they could see my ID card. They didn’t believe I was a student.

Mr. Lugo, 40, of Philadelphia is indeed a prolific ceramic maker. His website identifies him as a “ghetto potter and activist”; he is also a poet of the word.

On his active Instagram account, he tries to attract new audiences to his work and to ceramics in general. He sells work there directly, sometimes for charitable purposes. Mr. Lugo also teaches ceramics at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture, which is part of Temple University.

His tenacity and dedication to clay is on display in numerous exhibitions this fall, including “Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room,” which opens November 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“It’s a different kind of period room that needs a different kind of artist,” said Ian Alteveer, one of the Met’s curators who organized the show.

The exhibit is inspired by Seneca Village, the black community that flourished in the early 19th century not far from where the Met is today. It was destroyed by New York City in the 1850s to make way for Central Park.

“We thought, ‘What would it be like if this community was still there? ”Said Mr. Alteveer, a fan of Mr. Lugo’s art.

He added: “What’s fantastic about Roberto’s work is that he feels free to appropriate design and aesthetic elements from the past, but transform them into his own wonderful kaleidoscopic vision. “

The exhibition includes 26 works by Mr. Lugo, making him the most represented artist in the exhibition. Its flagship object is “Digable Underground” (2021), a large glazed stoneware urn painted with enamel, depicting the abolitionist Harriet Tubman on one side and singer-songwriter Erykah Badu on the other. The museum acquired it for its collection.

“I consider myself to be an Afro-Latino and have always found inspiration from my black ancestors,” Mr. Lugo said.

The Met show is just one of many. In Philadelphia, there is an exhibition-sale at the Wexler Gallery which runs until December 30. The Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania asked Mr. Lugo to organize an exhibition of his collection, and the result, “God Complex: Different Philadelphia,” is on view until December 1 (it includes also his own work).

Samantha Cataldo, who hosted a recent exhibition of her work at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, said her conversations with Mr Lugo centered on how inventiveness can be achieved with limited means. .

“He talks a lot about resourcefulness and ingenuity,” Ms. Cataldo said.

In addition to the work of local ceramists, included to emphasize the community, the show featured a food processor made by Mr. Lugo’s father from an engine that had been discarded. “It was one of people’s favorite things,” Ms. Cataldo said. (Mr. Lugo’s father and sister make all of the wrappers for the pottery he sells.)

Mr Lugo grew up in Kensington, which he called “certainly the worst neighborhood in Philadelphia”, adding: “As a child you are convinced that you are in the ghetto”.

“My first real relationship with art was doing graffiti” from the age of 14 to 19, Mr. Lugo said, adding: “The city has spent a lot of time covering it.” Now he considers this phase to be an important step in his artistic development.

Originally, Mr. Lugo studied ceramics with the intention of being a “production potter,” making basic objects, not works of art, and after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute. , he earned a master’s degree from Penn State.

At school, his teachers’ comments were “really bad,” he said, but on a trip to the library he saw in a book a photo of a Worcester jar, made by the royal porcelain maker from England.

“It was gold and royal blue, and there was a portrait on the front,” Mr. Lugo recalls. “I thought, ‘This item looks expensive. Right now I’m not feeling too good about myself, so what if I try to make this pot again and draw a portrait of myself on it? ‘ “

He did, and it planted a seed for his future art in pieces like “Brooklyn Century Vase,” commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum and currently on display there. It takes an 1876 work from the collection and depicts Jay-Z, Jackie Robinson and the Notorious BIG

In one of the many odd jobs he has held over the years, he once worked as a doorman in a building across from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“I ate my lunch on the museum steps well, but admission was $ 12, so I couldn’t afford it,” Lugo said. “And now I have a coin in the collection.”

Another of his work that was shown there, “Do you know how hard it is to get a black man through high school?” (2019), features the face of Michael Brown Jr., the black man killed in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Mo.

“I can’t tell you how many black mothers took a photo of this piece and posted it and shared their own stories,” Mr. Lugo said.

He added: “It is important that it gives people the feeling that this institution is there for them, not just for others. “

The images on his pots, urns and cups may be quite contemporary – “I use this to bring people into this medium,” he said – but Mr. Lugo’s techniques are downright. in the ceramic tradition.

“Today I use a wide variety of clays, for different reasons,” he said. “Sometimes I like to start with a dark clay because then the background has a certain color. So I use it for some of my functional pottery.

For his more elaborate works like the “Brooklyn Century Vase,” porcelain is “a whole different and messy thing,” he said, because its high iron content increases its plasticity. “It’s like throwing in cream cheese.”

This piece and others like it were hand painted by Mr. Lugo. “It’s a very traditional process called glaze painting, sometimes called Chinese painting,” he said. “It’s made by hand with a quill pen.”

Mr. Lugo has eight assistants who help him in his busy studio. “We call it Lugo Land,” he said. “I’m going to start my day by throwing in 20-30 cups as a kind of warm-up exercise.”

He is handing over part of his production “to young artists of color or to people who need support for their organizations,” he said.

Over the past few years, Mr. Lugo has shined the spotlight so much on himself, on social media and elsewhere, that it has taken its toll.

“I feel like I’m a sacrificial lamb,” he said of the sometimes harsh comments he received. “I had two serious bouts of depression.

He added: “Being an artist is all about vulnerability, but when you are vulnerable it empowers everyone.”

But that doesn’t stop Mr Lugo from making art or promoting it, in part because he believes his trajectory can inspire others.

“When I first started doing ceramics, if someone gave me a compliment, my joke was always, ‘Oh, you can go see my work at the Met,’ Mr. Lugo said.

Now that it’s really happened, he added, “It reminds me of how far we’ve come, but it’s not just about me. People need to look for artists like me and support us.


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