Rather than looking for differences, Roberto Lugo likes looking for similarities. Lugo, a Philadelphia-based ceramic artist, juxtaposes the unfamiliar with the familiar, the white with the black, the old with the new. Traditional Grecian designs are put next to graffiti. His face is on one side of a piece of pottery, and a white person is on the other.
As he explained to a room so full of University of Connecticut community members that extra chairs needed to be brought in, Lugo preaches liminality. That means he looks at things from both sides and instead of getting angry or violent, he looks for the common factors.
Lugo’s work is strongly influenced by his childhood in a poor neighborhood and his Puerto Rican heritage. One of his first pieces made on the pottery wheel was a fire hydrant, which was meant tell a story of when the water to his home was cut off and him and his father showered in the fire hydrant.
Lugo recalled when his father made only seven dollars in a month while having three children to feed. Lugo remembered being on a class trip and listening to classmates make fun of the man hawking his wares from the street cart, and quietly ignoring that the man was his father. Looking back, Lugo described his father as an Invisible Man. He didn’t understand what the people around him wanted, so the world moved around him.
Lugo’s exhibition is called “New Life: A Table for Everyone.” This means that people of all different backgrounds should be able to come together, and rather than focusing on differences, use their diversity to create a more complex conversation. To explain this, Lugo showed an art piece made by one of his students. The student saw the piece as a bat for hitting piñatas, but when Lugo first looked at the piece, he saw a police baton, which implies very different emotions.
The point he made was that the diversity, even between him and his student allowed for more complex conversation. What Lugo hopes his art can do is bring people together who don’t necessarily think they belong at the same table: people like his father, together with people like those from his class on the school trip, so nobody is invisible.
At the beginning of Lugo’s career as an artist, he painted birds. People would see the birds and say they looked nice. When he used graffiti in his work, reactions were less positive. Eventually, Lugo realized that the reactions to graffiti were more important than reactions to birds.
“I’m putting my face in a place it doesn’t belong,” Lugo said.
Sometimes Lugo quite literally means his face, as a number of his works include self-portraits incorporated into styles that resemble something you would find in a display case in Mount Vernon or the Parthenon.
“He puts things you always see in museums with the things kept out of museums,” first-semester illustration major Michaela Abato said.
This juxtaposition of styles, times and cultures that characterizes Lugo’s work is about putting two different things next to each other, not to emphasize these differences, but to comment on commonalities.
During the election of 2016, most of Lugo’s friends were liberals, but his family was largely conservative. While with his friends, Lugo didn’t understand why anybody would vote for Donald Trump unless they were racist.
In the name of liminality and commonality, Lugo asked people he didn’t believe were racist why they wanted to vote for Trump. The reasons they gave him were along the lines of wanting somebody who resembles and represents them who will help their family get jobs. Their reasons, Lugo observed, were a lot like the reasons he had voted for Barack Obama in earlier elections.
“Usually we see people throwing hate back at hate,” first-semester fine arts major Brock Sanford said of Lugo. “It showed a lot of maturity to be able to accept commonalities between both sides.”
One of the first pieces Lugo shared with the audience was an urn he created with the image of Michael Brown on it. It doesn’t matter if you think the police have the right side of the issue or the wrong side of the issue, Lugo explained. What does matter is that Michael Brown was a person, with a family who misses him, and he deserves an urn. Maybe people can’t agree on anything else, but Lugo believes this is one aspect of the issue nobody can deny, which is the commonality this piece attempts to communicate.
“There’s a lot of rooms of silence in the United States,” Lugo said, attributing the silence surrounding divisive issues to people either not knowing what to say or people not wanting to offend.
Lugo’s work is all about breaching this silence, not with words of hate, but by proving there is common ground.
Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.