Envisioning the Possible
- The ceramics of Roberto Lugo pay homage to their classical past but are firmly rooted in the realities of his inner-city upbringing.
- Zaria Forman & Nick Pedersen are using art to reframe the climate change conversation.
- Composer Gerald Busby could not have guessed that after surviving heartbreak, HIV and drug addiction, he would experience an artistic rebirth in his twilight years.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Roberto Lugo: I have no idea of whether I’m going to paint flowers or a fish scale pattern, or whom I’m gonna paint. I let a lot of that come out through the process. And I love the idea that there’s so much magic left, too. You can make so much of a better piece of art, if you don’t decide it all from the beginning. I like leaving a lot of those spaces empty, for me to make those decisions sort of more instinctually. And I think some of that comes from my background in graffiti, having to make really sort of off the cuff decisions, improvisational decisions.
And until his early 20s, graffiti was the only artistic practice on Roberto Lugo’s resume. Raised in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia by Puerto Rican parents, Lugo never considered a career in art until he happened upon a ceramics class at a community college.
Eight years later he’s become one of the most in-demand artists in his field. The self-described “ghetto potter“ makes work that’s a meeting of a classical medium and his own upbringing.
Lugo: When I say I’m ghetto, I actually think of it as I’m representing a certain culture. I think that’s part of being a postmodern artist, is being able to represent where you come from. And my culture is so underrepresented in the visual arts that I feel it’s really necessary to make it blatant and say “Look, I’m from this place, and these are the qualities that you get when you have someone from this place.” It’s not, everyone from the ghetto isn’t going to be like me. But, for example, when I look at a potter’s wheel, one of the first times I saw it, I saw a wheel spinning, and I think about big rims. Where I come from, like, having really big wheels with shiny rims was a big thing. And so when I see that, I think about bling. I think about standing out. When a lot of people see an image of Abe Lincoln, they’ll think about honesty, you know, all these great things that Abe Lincoln did. And I see some of that, but I also see a food stamp, you know? And so, coming from where I come from, I have all these relationships with visual things. And when I make pottery, I’m able to, like, take those experiences that I’ve had and relate them to people who may not have had those.
Lugo: You know, where I come from, a lot of people think our main issue is poverty, and a lack of education. But also obesity is a big problem. If you’re obese, a lot of times people see you—and, in my case, I’m arguing that they see you as a face full of sprinkles, ’cause they don’t think you can take care of yourself. And so sprinkles is my way of making light of a really serious matter. And I find humor is almost necessary whenever I make the work I do, because if you’re gonna just beat people over the head with really hard issues and not give them any comic relief, it becomes really difficult to swallow.
Lugo: And so not only will I, you know, make sprinkles to talk about obesity, but sometimes I’ll use rap lyrics to talk about political issues or race issues, and I find that those give some light to a really heavy situation.
Lugo’s unique approach has made him highly sought after on the college lecture circuit. Among his most popular moves, infusing talks with his own spoken word poetry.
I prefer people that empathize over people that exercise.
You can work on your pecs and thighs
and see your bodies next to God.
But if your heart’s anesthetized
so you don’t realize how your judgments affect my real life
attempt to feel, gosh, you think you’re real wise.
But this pain can’t heal my real pride.
I haven’t seen my family for a year
and they comment on my weight, wait.
Lugo: The reason why I chose to be a potter is because it was, like, the first thing I ever did that I really received encouragement from. Sometimes I argue it’s the first thing anyone ever told me I was good at. And so you spend your life not sort of receiving, you know, positive reinforcement for things you do, and you finally get it, it kind of encourages you to keep going.
Lugo: When I was in college, I just didn’t sleep. I would work 18 hours a day in school. I was the first one in and the last one to leave. I was very far behind, in terms of my technical skills. I went to schools that were really technically virtuous, and the students could throw pots really well, and sculpt really well. And so, since I didn’t have that, I had to work really hard. And then when I got to the same level, I didn’t decide to stop. I just kept going.
Today, Roberto Lugo is still hustling. A typical day involves teaching at Marlboro College in Vermont from nine to five, and spending the small hours in the studio. All this in service of pushing the limits of his craft.
Lugo: You know, for example I often make these Century Vases, and the Century Vase was made for the World’s Fair here in Philadelphia in 1876. And so it was depicting 100 years of what it meant to be an American—all the innovations that we had. And it has George Washington’s face and bison, and so I’ll make a black Century Vase, and I’ll put, you know, Frederick Douglass’s face on there, Harriet Tubman’s face, and it’s a different conversation. And now I feel like I’m still—I’m not disrespecting the original designer, Karl Muller. What I’m doing is adding to the discourse.
But Lugo doesn’t just let his art speak—he’s also a vocal advocate for racial tolerance.
Lugo: I have this color skin, and so this color skin can be a lot of things, you know? It could be Middle Eastern, it could be from Greece, you know…it could be from a lot of places. But, because I never grew up in Puerto Rico, I had a hard time finding other Puerto Rican friends. And because I wasn’t black, I had a hard time really making black friends. And so I was in this really racially ambiguous space.
Lugo: Before, where I also think racially ambiguous meant that I didn’t have any connections, I find that it means that I have more, you know, and there’s more for me to relate to many different races as opposed to relate to less. And so although I’m really proud to be a Puerto Rican, I don’t see any of my white or black brothers as any differently. I’m really proud to be part of all of them, ’cause to be Puerto Rican is to be black, and to be Native Indian, and to be partly white.
AJC: Whenever we see a description of you, it’s as potter and activist.
AJC: Does it always have to be carrying a message?
Lugo: Yeah, I think anything that I make will probably wind up carrying a message. I don’t have that much time in this world, and I have so much to say, and I lived so many years of my life with no one wanting to listen. And now that people are listening, I’m gonna give ’em all that I got.
Climate change is a pernicious force quietly eating away at the future of the human race. The extreme unprecedented weather events we’ve been experiencing with increasing regularity point to the hard truth that we’re burning way too much stuff. Global warming may already have passed the point of no return. 2015 was the hottest year on record, until it was surpassed by 2016. So the scientific debate has been settled, but the artistic discussion goes on.
Nick Pedersen: What really motivates me is to create artwork that is about the time that I live in and is reacting and raising questions to important issues like this.
Nick Pedersen’s work as a photographer and digital artist is driven by the idea of change.
Pedersen: So I like this one phrase that “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” I interpret that in my own work, and my goal is to raise these questions and get people to think about the future that we’re creating.
Zaria Forman: The point of my work is to try to offer people a time, and a place, and a space to connect with these landscapes that are changing so drastically.
Zaria Forman’s giant pastel drawings document her explorations of some of the world’s most vulnerable and rapidly changing environments.
Forman: I’m sort of freezing them in time in my drawings, because it won’t look the way that it looks when I saw it, even the next day. There were places in Antarctica where I got to revisit a week later, and the entire bay looked completely different. I wouldn’t have recognized it. The glaciers are caving, icebergs are flipping, breaking, melting, cracking. There is a sense of documentation, I think, in that where I’m holding a moment in time, stretching it out, expanding it. Then I do sometimes change, you know, the shape of the ice a little bit—or maybe the water was really choppy and dark that day, and I want a nice reflection, and so I’ll make that up. But in general I try to stay as true as I can to how I remember the landscape being in that moment in time when I saw it.
And whereas Forman’s art is a representation of a recent past, Pedersen’s imagines the future.
Nick Pedersen: It’s mainly a contemplation of time and our place in the world, and just showing that the world as we know it might not last forever. And is creates a setting for what could possibly come next. I like to say that it’s “hyper real,” because it’s taking images and piecing them together to create a different, new reality that doesn’t exist in the real world, but still has the weight of photographic believability and truth to it—which is what I think makes it powerful.
Pedersen: The Arctic series is about interpretation. The idea is that these future people are mythologizing the old world and creating sacred spaces to perform these rituals based on their unknown ancestors.
But how do all these fantastical futuristic creations change attitudes in the present?
Pedersen: There’s been a lot of scientific studies about the idea of fear, and how humans are hardwired to react instinctively to more immediate threats like terrorism, but we are pretty much unable to conceive of aslow moving catastrophe like climate change.
Zaria Forman: Psychology tells us that we as human beings take action and make decisions based on our emotions more than anything else, and I think what art can do is reach our emotions. So that’s why I’m drawing the beautiful things that I see. I mean I love beauty, that’s just something that’s a personal thing too. I recognize the beauty, and I want to bring it in front of as many people as I can, so they see it and they fall in love with it the way that I have. You know you can have a different kind of emotional reaction when you see destruction, and I think, in a way, that’s just as important. It’s just not a path I’m taking.
Pedersen: You see a lot of post-apocalyptic imagery in art and in the media that really, like, hits you over the head with these scenes of doom and gloom, but I think, to me, the most interesting artwork has real aesthetic beauty. And so those are the kind of images that I try to create, that really draw you in with composition and color and fine detail. But then, once you arrive, it leaves you with really important questions and thoughts to consider.
AJC: And what about the idea that it’s not a question of “if now,” it’s a question of “when?” That we are past the point of rescue.
Pedersen: That’s, that’s what I think inspires this urgency in my work, and what compels me to try and create as much as possible — because we are facing a lot of tipping points, if we don’t change.
Forman: We have reached a point of no return, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot we can do to turn the ship around and to make things better in the future.
AJC: Does it ever get put in your face that there are people who still blithely disagree with the biological facts of what you’re documenting?
Forman: Yes. I try to educate myself as best I can so that in these kinds of situations I can come back with the best response and at this point I think my best response is what’s the harm in taking precautions? It’s far more dangerous to just sit and wait and see what happens and it’s far more expensive. It’s still going to be expensive, but we’re going to lose a lot less if we prepare ourselves so I don’t really understand why we shouldn’t do anything about it.
Pedersen: Whatever happens to us, the Earth is going to be around for another 4.6 billion years. So the question is whether we can maintain a habitable climate, or how do we adapt to its changes?
Ultimately, both of these artists believe that their best hope for impacting climate change is in motivating changes in attitude.
When The New Yorker magazine described Gerald Busby as “a last living bohemian,” the composer took it as quite the compliment. Ensconced in the iconic Chelsea Hotel in New York City since 1977, he’s had something of a Renaissance as a composer in the past ten years.
Gerald Busby: It’s a reinforcement of my identity, in the most intimate way. That’s who I want to be remembered as—a person who created pleasure for other people.
It all began so well for Busby. His first commission in 1975 was from the great American choreographer Paul Taylor for his work, Runes. It was a big hit. Then Robert Altman asked him to score his movie, 3 Women. Altman and Taylor are two of five people Gerald Busby has worked with who he describes as bona fide geniuses. The others are the celebrated American composers Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein. And the iconic choreographer Martha Graham. But by the mid 1980s, it all started to go wrong for Busby: he contracted HIV. And as he watched his life partner Sam Byers die of AIDS, Busby picked up a serious drug habit that would blight his life for almost a decade.
Gerald Busby: He was withering away, he lost his mind. It was just a dreadful experience. And I was taking care of him and I was going crazy. I was going mad, and an old sex buddy of mine called up one day and he offered me crack and I immediately took it. If he had offered me heroin or anything I would’ve, I mean you know there was no thought about it whatsoever. It was all like “Let me out of here. Get me you know, anesthetize me. I want to escape my own consciousness,” is what it was.
AJC: But you thought you yourself were on a death sentence at that point.
Busby: Well yes, ’cause all of us in the early days of the AIDS thing presumed in our, dreadfully, in our hearts, that everyone who was infected was going to die. And probably much sooner, sooner than later.
But Gerald Busby didn’t die, and in his sixties, decided he was ready to live again. Reiki, an energy based healing technique, helped him restore balance to his life.
Busby: When I gave up drugs, and of course my age too, I gave up sex. And that, I was very dedicated to sex and in fact when I first did Reiki I kept thinking “How can I use Reiki to make my sex better?” That made my Reiki master really crazy. She didn’t like that at all.
AJC: Why did you give up sex?
Busby: I guess the reason is because it was so closely aligned with drugs. That when I gave up drugs, it was just you know, for the previous 10 years, I hadn’t done sex without drugs. So it was all kind of one thing. It took away the, you know the tyranny that I grew up with as a gay man. You know, when you had to be subversive and it was very, you’re like a criminal. What I learned was how to find clever ways to get away with it without being detected. So there was a lot of this criminal, this subversive kind of thing, which in itself fed you know, was a stimulus.
AJC: Two subversive things happening at the same time.
Busby: Yes, yes.
AJC: But sex is legal now.
Busby: Oh I know, I know. But I’m 80 years old. Are you married? So here we are, and it’s interesting too because I now have several young, anywhere from 25 to 40 year old, artists. A choreographer named Eric Taylor who’s brilliant that I’m working with, whom I love dearly and I think mainly because I have absolutely no agenda, no sexual expect[ation], nothing. But we are so close and we work so well together, and we’re so honest with each other. We’re so open because we have no secrets. I mean, somehow not having the secret of sex is—relieves me, kind of freed me like “Oh, I don’t have to have any secrets,” and I begin to think I’m much freer. The fewer secrets I have, the more freedom I have.
Now instead of drugs and sex, Gerald Busby is fueled by a renewed lust for life.
Busby: The most important thing is to be present as much as possible, ’cause that’s who I, I’m at my best in terms of writing music, in terms of talking, in terms of anything. I’m at my best when I’m present.
And Gerald Busby’s commitment to living in the present and letting go of the past has eliminated any fear of the future.
Busby: Dying is just another experience. It’s just a big fart or it’s a big gas coming or it’s a big, who knows? And Virgil was a wonderful example of that. When he was 92 he still had his marbles. He was still going and so forth, but he said one day, that’s enough. And he meant life, and so he planned, started writing out exactly what to do when he died. He said, and then he said I’m going to stop eating on Tuesday, and I’m going to stop drinking water on Thursday and I want to die on Friday so I can be in the New York Times on Sunday. And he did it and it was perfunctory. It had no emotion, nothing. It was just like “Okay I’m gonna take a trip to Nova Scotia.”
AJC: And did you cry?
AJC: Why not?
Busby: Well, because he never stirred that kind of emotion in me. I didn’t miss his presence. If he’d been charming, maybe I would have cried. He wasn’t.
AJC: People will cry when you die.
Busby: Oh will they?
Busby: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know! I’d kinda like it.