Ceramist and activist Roberto Lugo’s childhood was ornamented with summer days of playing in makeshift water parks – that is, the erupting fire hydrants that studded the Kensington sidewalks.
“There’s sort of a culture in a community like that that can’t really be found anywhere else, and some of it has to do with the fact that people there are struggling for money, so they create these ways in order to pass their time,” Lugo said.
Today, the same area of the city where Lugo grew up now encompasses the headquarters for InLiquid Art & Design.
The nonprofit organization will feature Lugo, along with four other Philadelphia-based artists in, “The City Real & Imagined: Urbanism, Identity, and Identification,” an interactive exhibition at Painted Bride Art Center at 230 Vine St.
The exhibition explores a spectrum of highly contested issues – incarceration, gentrification, stigmatization and stereotypes – that heavily impact cities like Philadelphia.
Amze Emmons, an associate professor at the Tyler School of Art, was the root of the idea for the exhibition. To highlight social injustice through his artwork, Emmons creates brightly colored prints of dystopian landscapes.
“A lot of the things I’m interested in making art about are kind of heavy and topics that people sometimes avoid,” Emmons said. “So, I approach color tactically, as a way to draw people in, by using aesthetically pleasing colors people will find the work strangely beautiful, and as they spend time with it, the complexity of the issues presented will become more real to them.”
When Rachel Zimmerman, a West Philly native and InLiquid founder returned to her hometown from NYU, she observed a lack of access for local artists.
“It was frustrating to watch all these people leaving Philadelphia rapidly because there weren’t enough opportunities here,” Zimmerman said.
Geared with a mission to improve the art scene in Philadelphia, she started InLiquid in 1999.
Lugo, to whom Zimmerman refers to as “the rising star” of the exhibition, embodies a blend of urban upbringing and artistic augmentation. Before working with porcelain on a potter’s wheel, he began his artistic career with a bottle of spray paint and an endearing graffiti tag – “Robske” – given to him by his older brother.
Ceramics didn’t enter the picture for Lugo until he moved to Florida and enrolled in a fine arts class at Seminole State College, where a professor recommended that he join the potter’s club.
Today, his works involve wares instead of walls, but Lugo said he sees many similarities between the two mediums of art.
“What I’m doing is more of a theoretical graffiti,” Lugo said. “Sort of vandalizing the idea that what I’m limited to is the culture that I was raised in, so today when I make pottery I often will reference graffiti within the designs, but I’ll combine graffiti with ornament.”
When Lugo began working on InLiquid’s “Juvenile In Justice” project, a series of works devoted to portraying minors in prison, he came across another graffiti enthusiast in the city.
“A lot of my spray paintings are really trying to sort of boil down or condense the urban experience – so it’s almost as if you’ve spent a whole day walking around and then you shut your eyes and try to remember everything all at the same time,” said Mat Tomezsko, a Tyler graduate and another featured artist in “The City Real & Imagined.”
After graduating from Temple, Tomezsko began incorporating more and more of the city into his work, painting over pieces of plywood and abandoned signs that he encountered walking around West Philadelphia.
Together, Lugo and Tomezsko created a series for the show “I Was Of Three Minds: Understanding America Through Bluebirds and Blackbirds,” examining the relationship between symbolic portrayal and harmful stereotypes.
Tomezsko said the bluebird is seen as a positive icon, while the blackbird is often viewed as a frightening omen.
“It’s useful to see things in symbols but there’s also a limitation to it, and I think that part of what we’re trying to illuminate is that you can assign labels to people but it sort of falls short eventually because somebody can be both a bluebird and a blackbird and it’s dangerous to limit yourself to being a symbol, because that’s all you are,” Tomezsko said.
Guest artist Jesse Krimes also explores the danger of judgement based on appearance in his “Prison Early Works” – a series of recreations of classic masterworks. To alter the iconic masterpieces that he studied from an art history textbook, Krimes replaced the godly figures in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation” or Sandro Botticelli’s works of Venus with the heads of convicted criminals.
Krimes’ work expresses his intention to explore the idea that gods and criminals, like bluebirds and blackbirds, are portrayals that could label someone for life.
“This is a depiction of an individual when they get in trouble,” Krimes said. “It’s one point in their life, but this narrative, this singular point of view ends up forming a lot of people’s opinions which ostracizes this person, when this person is much more complex than just whatever this description is.”
Krimes said he created “Prison Early Works” on federal bed sheets in his first three years in prison. The exploration led to his physically larger mural of 39 panels, “Apokaluptein: 16389067” derived from the Greek word “apocalypse.” Krimes said he crafted the artful contraband concoction by using clippings from the New York Times and hair gel to create inverted images, which he then blended together with colored pencil.
“The apocalypse is something that in its contemporary translation also corresponds to when you get sent to prison … one’s loss of identity, and that kind of personal apocalypse where you lose your sense of self and positive source of identity and you become this number,” Krimes said.
The threat of incarceration was present in Lugo’s life as well. He said he remembers a field trip to a prison in high school where, after a teacher pointed Lugo out as a troubled student, a warden took him into a cell.
Lugo, who considered himself a “church kid,” was shocked and dismayed when the warden told him, “This is where you’re going to end up.”
“I was to the point of tears,” Lugo said. “That really adjusted the way that I viewed myself, and also the way that I saw people look at me.”
Lugo’s ceramic works in the show will coincide with Krimes’ “Prison Early Works” by portraying prisoners, however, Lugo chose to include the mug shots of his personal African-American idols: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.
“Maybe it’s not the chance that we were given by society, but it’s something that we have power to control now,” Lugo said.
Angela Gervasi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org