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A sculptor and a ceramicist who grapple with race win 2023 Heinz Awards for the Arts

Artists Roberto Lugo (left) and Kevin Beasley are the 2023 winners of the Heinz Awards.
Joshua Franzos
Artists Roberto Lugo (left) and Kevin Beasley are the 2023 winners of the Heinz Awards.

Two art world stars whose bodies of work grapple with themes of race and historical inequity have been awarded the 2023 Heinz Awards for the Arts. The prize is one of the most lucrative in American arts. It was founded by philanthropist Teresa Heinz thirty years ago to honor her first husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz, who died in an aviation accident in 1991.

Heinz, who collected art with her late husband, said he viewed the arts "as a lens through which a society examines its conscience" as part of a statement announcing this year's winners. They are Kevin Beasley and Roberto Lugo. Each will be awarded an unrestricted prize of $250,000. The Heinz awards also recognize individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the economy and the enviroment.

Beasley is a sculptor whose work incorporates sound and occasionally, live performance. Not yet forty, his work is part of the permanent collection at some of the world's most prestigious museums including MoMa, the Tate Modern, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. That's where he mounted an acclaimed solo show in 2018 called A View of A Landscape. It was inspired by his family's history of growing cotton, and included a working 2,500-pound cotton gin motor. Like much of Beasley's work, it relied on relics and scraps of material culture that were part of the historical narratives he interrogates in his work.

"I have a belief that histories are not only written through language but even more importantly inscribed, collected and gathered through objects, ephemera, and places we encounter. Whether it's the texture of a weathered surface or the accumulation of stuff, the presence and existence of our activities and ultimately our lives is evidenced by what we leave behind, from footprints to legacy," Beasley said in a statement. "How do we account for the movements of generations before our own — our ancestors' — while also bearing witness, engaging, and noting the subtle movements unfolding right in front of us? I can't help but feel implicated in this fact, so it is imperative for me to channel this through my hands with materials that bring mystery, malleability, and aesthetic discovery to the forefront."

Ceramicist Roberto Lugo grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Philadelphia. Before he became what he calls "a ghetto potter," he was a factory worker who received his BFA when he was 31. Now, only about a decade later, the artist has had solo shows at the University of Pennsylvania's Arthur Ross Gallery and the Cincinnati Art Museum. More than 20 of his pieces are part of a group exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art inspired by the 19th-century Black community in New York that was destroyed to make way for Central Park. Lugo's wheel-thrown work includes elements that reflect his commitment to social activism. For example, his teapot spouts fashioned from gun barrels sourced from firearm buy-back programs.

"My work takes the form of creating pottery and engaging with the public to raise awareness about the issues affecting poor Black and Brown communities, including the ones I grew up in," Lugo said in a statement. "It brings me great joy that my work has been so well-received and that I can continue pursuing my dreams and representing my community in the arts."

Previous winners of the Heinz Award include August Wilson, Sanford Biggers, Roz Chast, Abraham Verghese, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Dave Eggers, Arthur Mitchell, Jacques d'Amboise, Rita Dove and Beverly Sills.

Rose Friedman edited this story. It was produced for the web by Beth Novey.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.