25 March 2015, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
Somebody once told me I would die before I be something, more likely to fry before I freeze something, more likely to sigh before I see something. You see, I'm not the one that's going tell you how you should feel. You may not know my pain but you understand how the sutures feel because when it rains you understood how a roof would feel. I see the act of making pots as a metaphor for my life. Somehow taking the ground that we walk on into something that we eat from, something that we prize, something that we wait all day in search for the perfect spot for.
On a school trip, instead of going to the zoo or the library or the theme park, our school decided that we go to a prison, a local prison. And we walked down aisles of black faces and at the end of that aisle the warden asked our teacher to select two students that he would talk to. He selected me and he selected Mustafa Bourke. The warden grabbed me by the back of my neck and shoved my face into a toilet, and he said this is where you're going to shit. He grabbed me by my shirt, showed me the bed and he said this where you're going to sleep in for the rest of your life.
I was raised as a Christian boy. I went to church every day of the week. My father was a pastor. I never cursed. I never talked back. But somehow the teacher that knew me every day selected me as someone who was bound for trouble. I realised early in my life that people look at you for how you are on the outside and they make all these judgements, and I would have to sort of face that the rest of my life. I was a brown person.
The wheel, however, gives me an opportunity to take all those things, all the things that happened to me, before I sit down, before I even sit down, and make something out of it. Make something out of myself. I completely believe in the power that somehow myself and the people in this room can kill hate by allowing children from everywhere to have access to clay. By allowing them to get on the wheel and fail. Then go home later that day and look at a mug, and see how perfect it is and drink out of it. And say, "How did someone make this so perfect?" And then look at the walls around them and say, "Someone made that that way".The floors.
Everything around you changes when you're able to fail, when you have access to an education in the arts. I started off with that image of me with a wall in back of me, and what I wanted to show you is how there's all this trash in Philadelphia. I grew up as a graffiti artist and I would paint, and the city would cover up my paintings. Instead of removing the trash, they would paint over what I did. And that was another lesson that the things I was doing was some sort of threat. It was actually a positive thing and it was within my power to sort of create change somehow.
One of my favourite poems that I've read is by Walt Whitman and it describes life as this beautiful play. And that we all have the ability to contribute a verse. So my case ... I get to contribute a verse and to add into the conversation an underrepresented culture, one of graffiti, one of people that want an opportunity to make art but don't. The only thing they can afford is a spray can. Sometimes they steal it. The only canvas they can afford is the streets around them and they paint places where everyone's forgotten about, where no-one cares about. And somehow that's a problem. Instead of the trash, instead of the poverty, instead of the people who have no food, that's the problem. I see art as an opportunity for me to be able to make change for that to change, and for children to be able to have the opportunity to do what I'm doing and stand in front of you right now.
When I look at this jar, I see a $5 food stamp. You might see Abraham Lincoln. With a $5 food stamp in Philadelphia, you can buy a turkey hoagie. And they were delicious. When I started in graduate school, one of the worst things happened to me in my life. My brother was unfairly incarcerated. Someone who I grew up with, who I always wanted to be like. And it challenged everything at that point that I thought was important. I always thought making art and becoming someone was important, but then I realised, "How can I make art when my brother, one of the people I love the most in this entire world, has to sit behind a cell every day.
My brother wrote me a letter and he signed it without wax. And he said, "Look it up", because he knew that even I didn't know what that meant. I looked it up and it was the way that sculpturs would say, with all sincerity, "I made this without wax". My brother was educating me from prison. My brother's locked in a state pen. I made art at Penn State. I'm a potter, I make plates. He's in gaol, he makes plates. I tried to be a student. You see I've got a home. I opened my cupboards and all I saw was student. I turned around, I got smacked, and all I did was student.
I said I'll join a synagogue. When it came to church, I just saw its walls crack by the cinder blocks. Words went over my head like a cinder shower. My weight left the world disappointed, like a sinner's pot. I said I'll be a veteran, but when it came to war I just saw my Pearl Jam like the Vetter Bay gunshots keep me up late at nights. Like Letterman, I can't be a Christian. I get confused, sort of thing, for these pots that I'm pissing in. Listen in.
Now, not only do I have a pot to piss in but I can make 'em. Graduate school ... Thank you. In grad school, a famous photographer came – Mr Richard Ross – and he was critiquing students in the photography department. And, man, he didn't hold anything back. He was a very honest man and the reason for that was is because he's making serious work. It was his life's goal to expose people to what happens to these kids. How do they get into the incarceration system? And all I can see when I look at this image is the art in the background. People are writing in the walls.
These kids want an opportunity to make art and it's up to me to give them that opportunity, because that's a Mr Richard Ross. Even though I made pots and had nothing to do with photography, I put my pottery in my backpack and I waited outside of the critique room. And I said, "Mr Ross, will you look at my pots?" He invited me to do a duo exhibition with him in Philadelphia where I had national exposure, where the funds from that went to expunge records of kids incarcerated to get them lawyers. To get them the opportunities that they deserve. That's the power of ceramics.
The things I make in my studio have to do with the hope that I have, you know? I talk about these things in order to give them precedence, to let you know that I can't make anything else because of my experiences. The person on the left you see, they're both me. They both have my face. But it's a Puerto Rican. Puerto Ricans have pride. Puerto Ricans are often Christian. And the person on the right, the person on the right is from the south. My wife's family. Not my wife's family in particular, but from the south. Southern people often have this stigma of being racist, of toting the Confederate flag.
What I wanted to do is put them both on a table and have them have a conversation, because in fact they'll find that they have so many similarities. So what's the reason to oppress each other? I made a series on the Bloods and Crips, a rival gang in Las Angeles, killing each. Predominantly people of colour. And what I wanted to do is I wanted to make an image of myself with a red bandana, and I wanted to have a friend with a blue bandana. My friend was white. I wanted people to confront that pot and I wanted them to look at it. It's decorative for a reason to sort of seduce you to come in to look at it.
I wanted them to see me and say, "That looks like a gangster". And then look at the other side and go, "That looks like a country girl, she's wearing a blue bandana. That's rather stylish". I put my face on pots because I want to put my face in a place that doesn't belong. I want you to get used to it. A hundred years from now I want a lot of people of colour to be on pots so that you see it every day and you become comfortable with it.
This particular pot has myself and Snoop Dog on the other side. This piece is called Latin Kings Jar. Latin Kings is a gang many of you may be familiar with, predominantly found in the north-east. The crown on top, however, is an air freshener that was used predominantly in the 90s when people would drive around with theirs cars and their systems. Later on, I found out through a little research that these crowns actually went to fund part of the Ku Klux Klan. And there's sort of this irony in that because of the fact that as a person of colour, I have to do things to not hurt my case. In many ways, I want to also be able to help my side, help the people of colour to be able to understand how we can do positive things to help each other.
Because black on black crime is not an option anymore. The things we do to each other are also important. I'm not a person who just deals with race and just deals with these issues. I have many happy moments in my life. I have the greatest parents in the world. I have a great wife. I have a six month old son. I love them dearly, but the things that I make art about often deal with more than just race. In this particular case, I've been dealing with obesity since I was a child. So in order for me to really reflect all of my different ideas, I need to make work about my weight as well.
I think eclecticism is under-appreciated within the arts because of the fact that I'm into the Wu-Tang clan and I'm into Worcester porcelain. Those are two things that I'm absolutely obsessed with. I love those two things. And you know what? And you know what, that what makes me unique. And that's what makes you unique. And that's what you could make art about. It doesn't have to be about one thing and, I'm sure, certainly not about one thing. This piece is about the day my belt broke.
The last thing I'll sort of discuss here is just the matter of how my painting and my pottery make sense together. Here's one of the vessels I made and here's the painting. This goes back to painting on a wall and having the city cover it up. I'm constantly painting over and over and over in my studio, and eventually I get to a point where I think it's satisfactory.
The last image I'll show reflects the experience I had. After all this work with community and social activism and trying to make a change in my world, I went to a gas station on the way to school at Penn State. And in that line, this man pulled up with a Confederate flag and a camouflage, souped-up truck. He asked the guy at the register, "Did you see who won the lottery last night?" And he said, "No, I didn't see". He goes, "Some fucking spick". I was there and the only thing I can think of is, "How can I get this guy to sit down with me and have a conversation, because that's how I think he could change". And I said I'll put the Confederate flag on a pot. I'll put something that represents him and something that represents me. We can sit down for tea and have a conversation, and at the end of it I think we'd both find out a lot. I'd stop assuming a lot of things about him and he would about me.
The last thing I want to say is just that I want to take Roberto Lugo out of the equation for a moment. The individual. And I want to say that I am proud to be a part of a community of people that honours the things I just talked about. That finds those things valuable. I like like as though we're an emerging culture. We're a culture that can change the world. The people in this very room that said Roberto Lugo is worthy of having up here. And I'm proud to be a part of you. Thank you.