In the Mix
The Village Potter
A conversation with Roberto Lugo on his upcoming project at Design Miami/, Erykah Badu, and crafting community through design
Over the past several years, American artist, activist, educator, and spoken word poet Roberto Lugo has crafted a unique space for himself in the creative world through work that combines traditional ceramic forms with potent contemporary visuals. Enlivened with hand-wrought references to hip hop, politics, his North Philadelphia upbringing, and his Puerto Rican heritage, Lugo’s striking, museum-worthy pieces marry pop culture and clay to celebrate communities of color and call out the persisting issues of poverty and racial injustice.
Lugo sees his practice as a vehicle to honor the culture and people he grew up with—in particular, “people who do a lot with very little”—and to empower the next generation as well. “When teenagers see somebody who looks just like them, that came from the same place, who’s making a living off of something like pottery, what’s really implicated is bigger than pottery,” he’s said.
While Lugo has built a successful artistic practice that’s garnered the attention of institutions, galleries, and collectors, he's also pursued a parallel track, developing a popular brand and digital platform—aka The Village Potter—to make art more accessible to a broader audience. In just a few weeks, Lugo and his NYC-based gallery R & Company will bring The Village Potter to Design Miami/, where the brand will launch its first-ever physical pop-up with a bodega-inspired storefront, stocked with functional, shoppable objects that reinforce the idea that art and design are for everyone. For the duration of the show, the pieces will also be available online at designmiami.com for those who can’t make it to the fair.
We sat down with Lugo to learn more about his upcoming projects, community-building through design, and choosing to be vulnerable.
Tell me a bit about your upcoming bodega concept at Design Miami/. What will the installation look like?
The Village Potter Bodega is a physical vision of the brand I am trying to create—reimagining the nostalgic corner stores I’d visit as a kid to get sofrito with my brother and cousins as a fixture of elevated design. Village Potter is about creating representation in design for the community I come from and others who can relate to that experience. The installation will feature lots of bright colors, references to Philadelphia, and embody the brand from graffiti to decorative arts.
What does the symbol of the bodega mean to you? And what do you most hope people take away from the project?
To me, a bodega is a community hub—a place that’s usually always open and operated by community members. One of the visions that I have for Village Potter is to create design objects that are not only representative of the community that I grew up in, but are more accessible than my larger scale works. The majority of work at Design Miami/ is usually incredibly high-end, and I’ve been grateful to show at the fair for the past several years. When I was offered the opportunity to premiere the Village Potter’s first physical pop-up location at Design Miami/, my first instinct was to create a bodega. Among the many ways that the Village Potter Bodega will be unique from other booths, [is that] most people will be able to stop in and take their purchases home right away.
You’ll also be presenting a new series of work called Conversation Pieces at R & Company’s booth during the fair. What can you tell us about that collection?
During the creation of Conversation Pieces, I was really influenced by the forms of Sèvres Porcelain and decided to include portrait busts alongside the painted portraits that I often feature in my work. The vessels also reference African textiles, Greek pottery, and graffiti. It is my intention to represent the cultures that make up my Puerto Rican identity (African, Taino, and Spanish) and my aesthetic sensibilities through the pattern work on these pieces and my work as a whole.
I was excited to learn you’ll be speaking with the one and only Erykah Badu as part of the fair’s talks program as well. Can you tell us a bit more about the topic of your conversation?
Erykah and I will be talking about our creative processes, from art-making and poetry to designing for our respective brands, Village Potter and Badu World Market. We’ll also discuss the connections between our creative contributions and the communities we come from, as well as how we see our work as forms of resistance and repair.
Beyond Design Miami/, you currently have some wonderful projects happening elsewhere, including a great show—also called The Village Potter—at Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey. Can you explain the idea behind the show and share what makes that particular exhibition so special?
The Village Potter at Grounds for Sculpture marks several milestones in my career, from the largest vessel I’ve ever created at 20’ tall to a dedicated showing of [works by] my mentors and mentees on the mezzanine of the museum space. Put Yourself in the Picture, the 20’ vessel showcased at the center of the exhibition, provides an opportunity for viewers to physically step inside and become honored as the “portrait(s)” in the vessel’s vignettes.
Throughout history pottery has been used to celebrate and memorialize nobility; I’ve recontextualized this tradition in my practice with POC figures, hip hop icons, and beyond. This monumental vessel exists to empower the viewer and continue the work of removing boundaries to who gets to be portrayed and highlighted and what stories get to be told.
One of the things I respect so much about your practice is how much you share of yourself—both on and off the clay. You are very open and vulnerable—from sharing your rejections and wins to normalizing conversations around mental health and calling out challenges facing underserved communities and beyond. How do you think about or frame this commitment to authenticity or openness? And how do you maintain it?
I think my approach to discussing mental health and vulnerable topics comes from my family, who has always been very open, and the community I grew up in where people spoke directly. I try to be as authentic as possible and communicate in a way that’s broadly understood in bringing up these subjects because I often feel alone and I want people to know that they’re not. Living in this way can be very taxing emotionally, so I don’t recommend it for everyone. I’m personally working on how to balance engaging with the community in this way and taking care of myself and creating boundaries at the same time.
That’s really beautiful. Looking forward, what’s up next for you? Any projects we should already be keeping an eye out for next year?
I’m very excited to be working on a public art project with Mural Arts Philadelphia called We Here in 2023 and 2024. One of my personal goals is to be more active in the Kensington, Philadelphia community where I grew up, and this project will allow me to do so while creating large-scale installations in the area that are both referential and in active conversation with Kensington residents.
Aside from the projects I’m working on, I’m looking forward to my first solo show with R & Company next year and to further developing my work and exhibiting new interests and the versatility of my studio practice. I plan on creating sculptures and two-dimensional works, as well as continuing to master more of the vessel. I see making pottery as a life-long cause and a constant reevaluation of where your weaknesses are. The way I see it, the more I develop my craftsmanship, the better I can clearly communicate the ideas that are important to me. ◆
Roberto Lugo’s Village Potter Bodega and Conversation Pieces series will be on view at the upcoming edition of Design Miami/, which is open to the public November 30-December 4, 2022. Advance tickets are available here.