Kelli Rae Adams

In the fall of 2012, three years after completing my master’s degree, I traveled to France for an informal residency at a friend’s studio. While there, I turned my attention towards making pottery for the first time in seven years. One afternoon, as we readied the kiln for a firing, I headed inside for a tea break. I set the kettle to boil and took a quick peek at my email. Waiting there in my inbox was the annual updated total of my outstanding student loan debt, refreshing the weight of this burden. Having spent the prior two months making wares for daily use, I found myself wondering: how many bowls would I have to make in order to repay this debt? I envisioned a field of handmade vessels, and I imagined them filled to overflowing with coins equivalent to this sum — the price of my own education juxtaposed with the product of the skills and knowledge it afforded me.

Work / study confronts the phenomenon of student debt in the United States in three distinct but related ways. One is the material data visualization created by the accretion of bowls. They represent my own effort of repayment, applied to the average individual student debt of $37,000; the bowls demarcate the volume, in coins, of this sum. The second is a collaborative act of collection, wherein participants offer up their household spare change to contribute to the work’s completion in exchange for an eventual return in the form of a bowl. This engagement mirrors the reverberations of student debt in the economy at large, which affect us all. The third, a triptych of oversized sheets of notebook paper composed of dollar bills, is a personal reflection on my own financial history in relationship to my first encounter with educational debt twenty years ago.

In concert, the works conjure a reimagined future. Through them, I endeavor to morph these imaginings into reality while grappling with systems that are largely invisible and intangible. I quite literally shape the capacity to hold the burden of debt while also generating possibilities for relieving it. More importantly, I leverage the works to propel these matters from the private realm into the commons so they might be better known, understood, and addressed.

This exhibition is dedicated to my longtime mentor and friend Larry Bush, who answered myriad questions with good humor and encyclopedic knowledge and who opened doors, both literal and figurative. He always encouraged me to return to my roots as a potter; he also counseled me to make what felt most urgent.