‘Transforming the art form of ceramics’: Philly artist Roberto Lugo wins $250,000 Heinz Award

The Heinz Award, with its quarter-million dollar purse, was given to the Philly artist who makes ceramics depicting urban life.

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File photo: Artist Roberto Lugo, who created the mural, ''The Talented Mr. Trotter: You Can Be Anything'' reads a poem about the hardships of growing up in Kensington and the importance of arts education. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

File photo: Artist Roberto Lugo, who created the mural, ''The Talented Mr. Trotter: You Can Be Anything'' reads a poem about the hardships of growing up in Kensington and the importance of arts education. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Roberto Lugo, a Philadelphia artist known for making pottery depicting Black and Latino heroes and urban neighborhoods, has been awarded the prestigious Heinz Award for the Arts, one of the largest awards for individual achievement in the world. It comes with a cash prize of $250,000.

Lugo often makes ceramics in the style of classic European dishware, but decorates them with stories, characters, and symbols that reflect his experiences growing up in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, as a way of injecting Black and Latino lives into the artistic and cultural cannon.

“His prolific work is transforming the art form of ceramics,” said Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Family Foundation. “Juxtaposing traditional with new and layering fresh perspectives and storytelling in ways that confront history and direct us toward positive change.”

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The Heinz Award is named after John Heinz, an heir of the Heinz ketchup company and former Pennsylvania senator who died in a plane crash in 1991. The Family Foundation has been giving out cash awards in various categories — including economy and environment — since 1993.

Lugo said he had known of the award’s prestige since he studied at Penn State University, not far from Pittsburgh. But had not realized it comes with a quarter million dollar prize.

As a father of two children (5 and 9 years old), a homeowner, and someone saddled with student loan debt, Lugo said the $250,000 will go a long way toward establishing personal financial freedom.

“Being an artist, I never thought I’d be able to do something like own a house. I never thought I’d have a full-time job teaching. I never thought I’d be able to pay off my student debt. All those things just seem like pipe dreams to be honest,” said Lugo, who teaches full time at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.

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“You make art and keep your head down and just think about what you’re trying to say with it, and hope that it all works out,” he said.

Lugo’s work is closely tied to his own upbringing. Growing up poor in Kensington, he was often surrounded by criminal elements as many men in his life were involved in illegal activity, including brothers and cousins who would be incarcerated at various times.

Lugo recalls feeling, as a young person, that there were no opportunities available to him to become successful at anything. Until he found pottery. Now, his work has been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Art Boston, and many others.

Recently Lugo had a show of large-scale works at Grounds For Sculpture in New Jersey, and painted a mural in Kensington of one of his heroes, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the band The Roots.

A small crowd lingers in the rain to look at the mural depicting Tariq ”Black Thought” Trotter on the side of the new Clay Studio building in Kensington. The mural, ”The Talented Mr. Trotter: You Can Be Anything” was painted by Kensington artist Roberto Lugo. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

He currently has a show at the New York gallery R and Company, called “The Gilded Ghetto,” in which Lugo made work in the style of ancient Grecian urn, decorated with figures depicting the school-to-prison pipeline, wherein young people in schools appear to be being prepared for life in prison.

When he sought to buy a home for his family, he wanted to stay near Philadelphia but get out of Kensington. He moved to Elkins Park.

“I had so many traumatic experiences growing up in Kensington that I didn’t want to move back to where I grew up,” he said. “Especially being a parent now, and being so worried about my kids. Kensington struggles a lot with the opioid epidemic that’s happening. I just wanted to find a place where I felt connected to the city, but at the same time not worried about reliving some of those traumas.”

Lugo said the quarter-million dollar Heinz prize is particularly welcome because it will free him to pursue more community-based creative projects, which are often not as lucrative as his studio production.

Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter (left) taikes a selfie with Roberto Lugo, the artist who painted his mural on the Clay Studio in Kensington. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Next spring, he will return to Kensington to create large-scale, public ceramic works developed in community workshops with Mural Arts Philadelphia.

“I’m teaching people there how to make patterns and I’m using those patterns to decorate public sculptures,” he said. “That’ll go back into the community where I grew up.”

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