During her childhood, Kelli Rae Adams recalls filling up a household change jar to save up for college. Now, as one of the 43 million adult Americans burdened by student loan debt, the ceramics artist is exploring the incremental and often futile nature of paying for an education through her work.
In “work/study,” an exhibition currently on view at the Corcoran School of Arts & Design, Adams puts the reality of the student debt crisis in perspective through an installation of more than 600 wheel-thrown pots. The red and white bowls—each of which took about an hour and a half to make—can hold approximately $40 worth of loose change and are arranged in neat rows lining the rotunda floor.
“I feel like people have a hard time wrapping their minds around these really large sums that people are borrowing,” Adams says. “So I did the calculations and started playing with what it would be like to create a more conceptual piece that would visualize this problem.”
Adams is currently a fellow at the Halcyon Arts Lab, a socially-conscious arts residency in Georgetown. As a member of the 2018 cohort, she was granted a nine-month residency at the studio free of cost while she worked on projects focusing on existing economic systems and the role of currency in society.
The exhibition at the Corcoran will close on Saturday, September 28 with a gallery walk and a Q&A session with Adams. Visitors are encouraged to contribute change to the project, and in exchange they will receive one of the bowls after the exhibition runs its course.
By the end of the exhibition, which she plans to take on the road, Adams aims to collect $37,000 worth of spare change, a number she chose based on her personal student loan burden and the national average. According to a study by the Brookings Institute, the average amount borrowed to fund a graduate degree is over $40,000.
Adams will use the coins to pay off a portion of her debt and donate the rest to organizations which help other students pay off their loans. As of now, Adams’ installation has collected approximately $1,500 in spare change.
For Adams, the exhibition is meant to both explore the magnitude of the student debt crisis, and question what the cost of an education should be in society. She says its been interesting to see people who have had different experiences within the education system react to the exhibition.
“There are certainly voices of people who say ‘I was able to work two jobs and put myself through school,’ and that’s one of the things I’m trying to point at,” Adams says. “We’ve made this leap within my lifetime where it went from being possible to being a complete absurdity.”
Much like with a carnival guessing game, Adams says that gallery visitors often had very different estimates for how many pots were part of the installation.
In a stroke of luck for Adams, her project timeline has aligned with the emergence of a national conversation about student loan forgiveness sparked by the 2020 election cycle. Starting the tour at the University of Rochester in November, Adams says she plans to align showcases at college campuses with state primaries in the spring.
“I think on some level culturally it has been allowed to grow unchecked without a moment to take perspective and ask if we are doing the best we can by our young people,” she says of the student debt crisis. “It feels like completely serendipity for me that this was the moment that I was able to bring it into being and be part of this larger zeitgeist.”
The “work/study” closing exhibition will take place from 4 to 6 PM at the Corcoran School of Arts & Design on September 28. To learn more about Adams’ work, visit her website and for information on the change donation process visit https://calendar.gwu.edu/kelli-rae-adams-work-study.