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How artist Roberto Lugo is upending porcelain traditions with his personal, cultural roots


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

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.

Robert 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.

Robert 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.

Robert 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.

Robert 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.

Robert 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.

Robert 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.

Robert 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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