Ceramic artist Roberto Lugo’s spin on teapots

Roberto Lugo knows this isn’t something you see every day in North Philadelphia: “Someone literally just asked, ‘What ch’yall getting set up to do?’ And I said, ‘Throw pottery,’ and he went, ‘Yeah, yeah.'”

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Street pottery: Roberto Lugo working outdoors in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.  CBS News

Lugo was born and raised in Kensington, a neighborhood with a national reputation for drugs, poverty and crime – not pottery. “They see this potter’s wheel and they stop, and I get to teach them, and put my hands on their hands. And the thing that’s really amazing is to see the look in their eyes. The emotion that I gather from them is, like, ‘I can’t believe that somebody thinks I’m special enough to stop and teach me how to throw a pot.’ I just feel like that’s so rewarding to make people feel valued as they should.” 

Lugo’s occasional sidewalk setup is a stark contrast to the formal displays of his work in leading art museums around the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which will show his work this fall.

Each of his pieces is a modern spin on classic tea pots and ceramics featuring the faces of Lugo’s personal heroes, like Beyoncé, Nina Simone and Stacey Abrams. Some works sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

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Robert Lugo teapots. CBS News

Correspondent Serena Altschul asked, “I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a ‘ghetto potter.’ What does that mean?”

“I never really heard of the word ‘ghetto’ being used in the connotation that I think most people use it until I left,” he said. “For me, being ghetto is where my life begins, and it’s where I get my creativity and my resourcefulness. So, I really want to represent that wherever I go.”

Lugo was raised by what he describes as a tight-knit, hard-working Puerto Rican family. In his mid-20s he was introduced to ceramics at a community college, eventually going on to earn a master’s degree from the Penn State School of Visual Arts.

He recalled, “I was in class and I would see 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 are White people drinking, you know? Because it was all White people around me. And then after a while I said to myself, Well, wouldn’t it be interesting if, like, I am able to connect with them with making things that they understand, but then inserting things that they don’t understand?

Like this piece featuring Abraham Lincoln, as Lugo first saw him – on a food stamp. “I remember being able to buy a hoagie in Philly with that,” he said. “I think a lot of my work has evolved through me trying to communicate how someone like me sees things differently, so that way we can be in conversation.”

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Roberto Lugo

It’s a conversation Lugo engages in as often as possible, most recently at the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery. There, he transformed a temporary exhibit space, with the gallery’s formal portraits on one side, and his own graffiti and pottery on the other. 

The space showcases what Lugo calls two sides of Philadelphia – a theme he personally knows all too well.

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An installation view of Roberto Lugo ceramics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery.  CBS News

Altschul asked, “Did you ever think when you were in your early 20s and touching a wheel for the first time, that it would end up here?”

“No,” Lugo replied, getting emotional. “You know, honestly I feel like I was most likely gonna wind up in jail, or be killed, or any other things. And so what’s interesting is like, even though I reached a certain level of success, it never really feels like me. When I see my name in a museum I kind of feel, like, that’s a different person, and I have to distance myself from it.”

“Are the tears about that, that you feel like you’re still not one with the guy that’s now crushing it in the art world?”

“My success is really my mother’s success, you know, and how she had to make sure that I stayed in high school. My father’s hard work, like, he would ride a bike from Philly to New Jersey every day just to start his job. I would say that my family is this place where I feel like, my success is really all of ours.”

At 40 years old, Roberto Lugo is not just an artist, but a husband and father of two. He’s molded his success story, and says he hopes to inspire others to shape their own: “Me being a potter, what’s implied isn’t that a lot of other people should go and become potters; what’s implied is that someone like me can be anything they want, and be successful at it.”

       
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Story produced by Sara Kugel. Editor: Chad Cardin.