Photo: Joshua Franzos
28th Heinz Awards - 2023
Ceramicist, activist, poet and educator Roberto Lugo receives the Heinz Award for the Arts for his wheel-thrown pottery, which employs traditional European and Asian vessel forms as canvases for his portraits and ornate street art designs. Depicting narratives about social resistance movements, hip-hop culture and his own Puerto Rican and African heritage, Mr. Lugo’s vessels feature overglaze paintings of his heroes, ranging from Stacey Abrams to Beyoncé.
A self-described “ghetto potter,” Mr. Lugo extends his work beyond his studio practice. He takes his potter’s wheel out onto city sidewalks to encourage strangers to give it a try and brings that spirit of generosity into his classroom at Temple University.
Mr. Lugo’s childhood in Philadelphia was marred by violence and poverty but was also rich in culture and community. His earliest experiences with art were making graffiti as a teenager, a style that continues to be central to his practice. As a ceramicist, he introduces function and deeper meaning to his pots by, for example, making teapot spouts out of gun barrels sourced from firearm buy-back programs. While his pots mirror superficial design elements of artworks created for wealthy patrons, his versions speak to poverty and social injustice as well as the accomplishments of individuals who have overcome such hurdles and gone on to inspire generations.
A noted example is “God Complex: Different Philadelphia,” for which Mr. Lugo curated pieces from the University of Pennsylvania’s collection and created new work in response, including a pot titled "Bridges," featuring a portrait of Mr. Lugo’s father on one side and Benjamin Franklin on the other. The former faced graffitied walls and pedestals from which Mr. Lugo displayed his works honoring individuals of color who have contributed to Philadelphia’s history.
For his online platform, The Village Potter, he makes art that is more representative of his community and accessible to a broader audience.