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Artist upends porcelain traditions with personal roots

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston brings us a look at artist Roberto Lugo, who puts family, tradition, and historical figures like Harriet Tubman at the center of his work in New Hampshire. It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, CANVAS.

AIRED: September 23, 2021 | 0:04:59
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now a look at artist Roberto Lugo, who puts family, tradition, and historical

figures like Harriet Tubman at the center of his work.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH-Boston brings us this report from New Hampshire,

as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

JARED BOWEN: In mugs and plates and urns at the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire,

we find the porcelain DNA of artist Roberto Lugo.

ROBERTO LUGO, Artist: In this exhibition, I have images of protests, of historical figures

like Angela Davis and Black thought and people that have really inspired me to make me who

I am. And I couldn't be that without those people.

JARED BOWEN: This show, as the title explains, is the ceramicist bringing us his joy for

a career literally shaped around culture, his own roots in graffiti and his love of

family.

ROBERTO LUGO: Here's my mother with her granddaughter teaching her how to make pasteles, which is

a Puerto Rican dish.

And then there's the image of a family in the '60s, which is my family, my grandma with

the bouffant and getting ready for church. And in some ways, I think this table is like

a self-portrait.

SAMANTHA CATALDO, Contemporary Art Curator, Currier Museum of Art: He's thinking about

his culture, where he comes from, people that influence him.

JARED BOWEN: Contemporary art curator Samantha Cataldo says she's drawn to how Lugo takes

centuries of prized porcelain tradition from Europe and Asia, only to upend it with his

story.

SAMANTHA CATALDO: Using this historic form of pottery, porcelain especially, which traditionally

would have kings and queens, and very much within a Western and white narrative, to put

someone like Harriet Tubman or himself or the rapper Missy Elliott onto a piece of pottery

is really making a statement, like: I belong here. My culture belongs here.

JARED BOWEN: What do you make of how open he is and how much autobiography there is

in his work?

SAMANTHA CATALDO: Yes, Roberto's work is very vulnerable.

JARED BOWEN: So was Lugo himself, when, as a young art student of Puerto Rican descent,

he was bluntly told he didn't fit in.

ROBERTO LUGO: I feel judged exhaustively. And that's one of the things that drove me

to make the work I did, because when I was in a class, and there's a photograph of me

and someone just says, this looks like a Mexican gangster, you know?

And it was this, like, moment where I'm sitting there making pottery and I'm like, no matter

what I make, this is how people are going to see me if I'm involved in the work. And

so I started making work to counteract that.

JARED BOWEN: Which has meant depicting life the way he sees it, including tea time, for

Lugo, a very foreign concept.

ROBERTO LUGO: When I took my first pottery class, I'd never drunk tea from a teapot,

you know?

An so I see all these students around me making teapots and making teacups. And I'm thinking

to myself, like, how much tea do these people drink, you know? And I didn't understand it.

I'm not sure if people realize that, like, when a person of color that grows up where

I did, when I'm having tea, there's all these things that come into my mind. And it can't

just be about tea, because of my experiences, you know?

So, like, I will look at certain shapes, and it will remind me of other things. Like, when

I look at a spout, I also think of a gun trigger because of the ghetto that I grew up in.

JARED BOWEN: The artist's singular vision has landed him in museum collections. He's

been awarded the prestigious Rome Prize, and he's collaborated with celebrities and fans

like actor Seth Rogen.

But Lugo is most mindful of his roots. He can often be found working with his and other

communities, giving away work, teaching kids and working with veterans. And he has a name

for it.

ROBERTO LUGO: It's sort of this idea that I'm the village potter.

JARED BOWEN: Because Lugo wants to be a connector of people and art. He asked the Currier Museum

to place his work atop or alongside its own historic pieces. His urn featuring Bob Marley

rests on an 18th century table.

ROBERTO LUGO: People can see that all these things can coincide and be beautiful.

And that's really the hope, is that when people see themselves reflected in the narrative

of a person of color, then they grow closer to that.

JARED BOWEN: Much the same way Lugo found himself connected to this painting in the

Currier's collection. It's by white folk artist Grandma Moses, and reminds him of his parents'

upbringing in Puerto Rico.

ROBERTO LUGO: I think there is this, like, sense of displacement I have always felt as

a Puerto Rican growing up and always hearing about my parents and the farm life.

These kind of paintings, like, almost transport you there, where you feel like you're comfortable

however you are there, like working on the farm. And I just love that about these pieces.

JARED BOWEN: It's a shared experience for the artist, who's learned it takes a village

to be the potter.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Manchester, New Hampshire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Such an inspiration.

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