Mar 25, 2024

We Here: A New Art Project Coming to Kensington with Roberto Lugo

by: Jenny Donnelly Johnson

We Here is a public art project focusing on youth, creativity, and pottery, led by artist and Kensington native Roberto Lugo and a Community Advisory Council of Kensington residents. 

Featuring three monumental outdoor sculptures in Kensington  •  Free community pottery workshops  •  Public programs including sculpture tours and a symposium  •  A bilingual children’s book and story-time events


Roberto Lugo. Photo: Ryan Collerd.

Kensington native and award-winning artist Roberto Lugo is leading a two-year community-engaged art project to illuminate the vibrant neighborhood of Kensington with creativity and resilience starting this Spring 2024. The project is spearheaded by Mural Arts’ Porch Light program, a collaborative effort with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, which has worked to broaden access to the arts in Kensington since 2017.

Inspired by Lugo’s journey as a professional artist who grew up in Kensington, We Here emphasizes youth engagement through pottery. The project features pattern-making and pottery workshops designed to actively involve local school groups and community members in an immersive artistic journey that will include the unveiling of three monumental outdoor sculptures at public sites in Kensington during the Summer of 2024. Workshops will be led by Lugo and collaborating artists, including Yinka Orafidiya and Nitza Walesca Rosario.

Three monumental outdoor sculptures, designed by Roberto Lugo, will embody the spirit of the community, integrating pattern designs and other input from Kensington residents. Accompanying the installations, public programs, including tours and a symposium, will occur from June to October 2024, celebrating the project’s impact and community stories.

(L to R)  Artwork by Roberto Lugo. Photo by Joe Kramm. Roberto Lugo with his Artwork. Photo by Joe Kramm. Artwork by Tiffany Smith. Courtesy of Courtesy of R & Company and Grounds for Sculpture.

In conjunction with We Here, Mural Arts will publish a children’s book based on the story of Lugo’s discovery of art. Co-developed by Lugo and acclaimed children’s book author Frank Berrios, the bilingual (English-Spanish) illustrated book will be distributed to families in Kensington for free. 

Along with Lugo and the project team, We Here is led by a Community Advisory Committee consisting of Kensington residents Daisie Cardona, Margarita Gonzalez, Tyler Kline, Brenda Mosley, Sunny Phanthavong, Neyda Rios, Claire Sitarz, Drew Spence, Katelyn Stoler, John Walsh, and J.C. Zerbe.

“I’m a firm believer that art brings about healing, and I’m here because I believe in what we’re doing with Roberto,” says CAC member Brenda Mosley, founder and executive director of the Kensington-based non-profit By Faith Health and Healing, Inc.

“A lot of people in Kensington are dealing with tragedy and trauma and loss, and Roberto’s art provides the joy that’s needed in healing,” Mosley explains. “What’s really important is that Kensington residents know who Roberto is and, all that he has come from, and how he has established himself. He’s a true vision of hope that people can connect with.”

There are artists and visual thinkers in every community, and with access and the support to express themselves creatively, everyone can have the opportunity to thrive.

- Roberto Lugo

Roberto Lugo with his Artwork. Photo by Joe Kramm. Courtesy of Courtesy of R & Company.

A visionary artist, Roberto Lugo redefines traditional ceramics with a unique blend of 21st-century urban flair and hip-hop culture. His works, deeply rooted in his Kensington upbringing, showcase a fusion of classical forms, graffiti, and portraiture, often featuring influential figures absent from luxury ceramics. Lugo’s involvement in We Here showcases his artistic prowess and strengthens the bond between art and community in Kensington.

We Here is a project I started in collaboration with Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Porch Light program to celebrate and create art in Kensington, the community where I grew up. There are artists and visual thinkers in every community, and with access and the support to express themselves creatively, everyone can have the opportunity to thrive,” said Lead Artist Roberto Lugo.

“With the larger-than-life vessel sculptures that will be installed in the neighborhood, my goal is for folks to take pride in our community and see themselves as artists in the colorful patterns derived from and inspired by Kensington that will adorn the artwork,” said Lugo. “The sculptures themselves are an invitation for the community to interact; by stepping inside, you complete the artwork’s vignette as the portrait subject. I was inspired to create these sculptures and debut them in the community that raised me after taking notice of the stigma surrounding people taking selfies or photos with artwork. Above the criticism, I saw the natural inclination of people yearning to be reflected in something beautiful. With We Here, I’m bringing art back to my neighborhood and urging the people of my community to step into their absolute talent and creativity.”

We Here embodies the essence of Kensington’s resilience and creativity, transforming the neighborhood into a living canvas,” said Jane Golden, Executive Director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “Through Roberto Lugo’s inspiring work and our collaborative community efforts, we’re not just making art – we’re weaving a vibrant tapestry of hope and unity. This project is a powerful testament to the transformative role of art in community building.”

Major support for We Here has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from the Hummingbird Foundation and the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.  Thanks to our partners at Kensington Corridor Trust, Taller Puertorriqueño and the Free Church of  St. John. The works are being produced locally in collaboration with the Johnson Atelier team in Hamilton, New Jersey where Lugo’s first monumental public artwork “Put Yourself in the Picture” was produced in 2022 for his residency and solo show at Grounds for Sculpture.

I want people to feel seen

- Roberto Lugo

Meet Roberto Lugo 

Roberto Lugo. Photo: Joe Kramm. R & Company.

As this project gets underway, we reached out to Roberto to learn more about his artistic vision, process and the impact he hopes the project will have.

What is your vision for this project?

My vision is for the people of my community to see themselves reflected and celebrated in the sculptures joining the Kensington neighborhood. Beyond a feeling of hometown pride, I also hope this project inspires others to recognize the inherent value that Kensington residents bring to our city and the importance of investing in arts opportunities for everyone.

What impact do you see this project having on Kensington?

I’m hopeful that the immediate impact will be creating more spaces for joy in the neighborhood — my dream is for kids, families, older residents, and everyone in between to walk through these sculptures and feel empowered as they become part of the artwork. I’d love folks to see the patterns that decorate the sculptures’ surface and recognize those visuals as an artistic contribution and celebration of their community. In the long term, my dream is for the project to inspire neighborhood residents to recognize the artist within themselves and, in turn, increase visibility and access to arts opportunities in Kensington where their creativity can thrive.

How do you want people to feel when they see your installations?

Joy, empowerment, but above all, I want people to feel seen.

Tell us a little bit about your artistic process when working with the community.

In any circumstance where I’m working with the community, I let the folks I’m with guide the experience. I’m grateful for all my years as an educator, and one of my core principles is to meet people where they are. Once you provide the space and opportunity for people to make art or share in a creative experience, leading with empathy and kindness will yield the greatest results.

What do you see next?

After almost two years of hard work on this labor of love project, I haven’t thought much about what comes next. I know that I’ll never want to stop coming back to my community and creating arts opportunities for folks. I would also love to continue working with Mural Arts and Taller Puertorriqueño. I’m sure there’ll be more exciting projects on the horizon, and I can’t wait for whatever comes next.

Roberto Lugo’s Bio 

We Here Community Meeting. Photo: Steve Weinik.

Roberto Lugo is a Philadelphia-based artist, ceramicist, social activist, poet, and educator. Lugo utilizes classical pottery forms in conjunction with portraiture and surface design reminiscent of his North Philadelphia upbringing and Hip Hop culture to highlight themes of poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. Lugo’s works reimagine traditional European and Asian ceramics, adding a 21st-century street sensibility. Their hand-painted surfaces feature classic decorative patterns and motifs combined with elements of urban life, graffiti, and portraits of individuals who have been historically absent from traditional luxury vessels, individuals such as Sojourner Truth, Dr. Cornel West, and The Notorious BIG, as well as Lugo’s family members and, very often, himself. Lugo holds a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA from Penn State. His work has been featured in exhibitions at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, among others.

Recently, Lugo received the esteemed Heinz Award, granting $250,000 in unrestricted funds. He has also received numerous awards, including a 2019 Pew Fellowship, a Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Rome Prize, and a US Artist Award. His work is found in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The High Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Walters Art Museum, and more. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Tyler School of Art and Architecture in Philadelphia.

Last updated: Mar 22, 2024

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share Your Thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *