Installation view of “Breaking Even,” David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, Providence, RI, 2013. Photo: Matthew Clowney

Translating the Intangible: A Conversation with kelli rae adams

kelli rae adams examines invisible and intangible subject matter—invisible labor, care, and money. Trying to get at things we can’t otherwise grasp is the common thread running through her work. In many ways, the consideration of food, as labor and sustenance as well as art material, has played an important role in her very particular, and personal, approach. adams’s mother has run a beloved bakery in southern Virginia for more than 30 years, and the artist herself regularly bakes sourdough bread from a starter another artist gifted to her, a bread that she taught me to make during our conversations. As we prepared the dough, comparing the process to that of clay, and talked about the development of her participatory installations, it became clear that time is another important theme in her work.

adams’s ceramic-based installation Forever in Your Debt, currently on view at MASS MoCA, addresses the student debt crisis in a visually direct and succinct way, offering visitors the opportunity to engage directly with the work—and the issue—by inviting them to place coins in a bowl. As the vessels are filled, their red interiors (referencing “being in the red”) gradually become obscured. At the conclusion of the project, adams will send one of her handmade bowls to each participant who has offered enough coins to fill one of them.

On-site production of Forever in Your Debt, exhibited as a work-in-progress at Bannister Gallery, Rhode Island College, Providence, RI, 2019. Photo: Courtesy Bannister Gallery

Lauren Levato Coyne: I’m curious about your undergrad experience of welding and then your transition into clay.
kelli rae adams: I loved welding; it felt like a magic power. I learned how to weld in my first sculpture class at Duke. I moved to Japan right after graduation to teach English, and I soon realized that I wasn’t likely to get my hands on a welding torch, so I tried a couple of different traditional arts before finding ceramics. When I was invited into people’s homes for dinner, I noticed their bureaus full of gorgeous mismatched pottery. In Japan, the custom is to have a hodgepodge of vessels, with varying glazes, shapes, and styles—those differences make the collections really beautiful. People would typically have sets of five or seven or nine—no even numbers because odd numbers are considered more auspicious. All of this bumped up against American aesthetics, as well as my own tendencies toward perfectionism. I studied in the Karatsu lineage, one of Japan’s renowned pottery traditions, and its wares have a look of imperfect beauty, an asymmetrical perfection.

LLC: How and when did food emerge as a material for you? There seems to be a relation to performance, which makes sense given your background in dance, but also to labor, care, healing, and the body.
kra: In Japan, I sometimes felt a longing for the food of my childhood—for a certain nourishment via nostalgia. I remember calling my mom to ask for recipes. Food has always been a deep part of my family culture, but I think I had a bit of resistance to learning how to cook because for so many women in my family, it was a primary, defining aspect of their identities. I wasn’t consciously rejecting it, but from an early age, I felt like I was on a different path. For me, clay came first as an interest, and then I looped back to cooking. When, as an adult, I went to my mom’s bakery to help with the holiday cake rush, I realized, “Oh, I know how to do this,” because it was so similar to certain processes in clay. It also helped that my sensei baked bread; he established that link for me between dough and clay.

Aside from a couple of short residencies, I had no dedicated studio space for two years after graduating, so I was in search of creative outlets that wouldn’t require one. I was becoming more interested in cooking, food, and farmer’s markets, and I started thinking about pickling. I tried small-batch recipes, just a couple of jars of vegetables, and afterwards I lined them up and they made the prettiest rainbow. I remember starting to connect the dots on labor, particularly women’s work and domestic labor, remembering my mom and aunts canning tomatoes and green beans when I was a kid.

Curing Time, 2017. Foodstuffs, canning jars, and clay, 144 x 40 x 4 in. Photo: Matthew Clowney

LLC: How did those kitchen explorations turn into gallery installations?
kra: At that time, there was something called Providence Provision, a group of volunteers hosting dinners to help fund art through microgrants. Patrons paid $10 for dinner, which was followed by a few artists presenting new project ideas, and then the audience voted on which one to fund from the proceeds of the dinner. It was a very cool way to convert funds quickly into a grant while also creating a communal experience. I pitched a pickle installation idea in the summer of 2012. I won that night’s grant, and soon after, I wound up in a conversation with a curator at Brown University, who had heard about my work from a mutual friend. We eventually ended up incorporating this idea into my first solo exhibition.

LLC: I think of your bodies of work as types of translations. Do you think of them that way?
kra: I think a lot about translation, translating the intangible. In grad school, the first thing that gave me some traction was making clay yoga mats. I had been doing all this work in the studio, searching for forms other than the vessel, and I realized that everything I was doing was essentially a kind of meditation, much less focused on outcome than on process. And I thought, “If all of this is an extension of my yoga and mindfulness practice, what if I approached that in the most direct way possible?” Then, the next question became how to translate an experience that had become vital to my life. My first five years of yoga were in Japan, outside the context of the yoga lifestyle in the States. How could I translate this experience and its energetic imprint as a contrast to the images of yoga I was seeing in the U.S. media? Translating, trying to get at things we can’t otherwise grasp is certainly a through-line, a common thread. A lot about the current work, Forever in Your Debt, for example, started from thinking about cash versus cards and how intangible our relationship to money has become.

Blueprint: Lohar Home, Mumbai, 2009. Raw porcelain and acrylic ink, 120 x 120 x 5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

LLC: I imagine your time in Japan fed this thinking?
kra: Yes, certain things about money became clear to me while I was teaching in Japan. I was on a mission to pay off my undergrad debt. At that time, Japan was still very much a cash-based culture. ATMs were only open the same hours as banks. That helped me realize just how indoctrinated we are in the States with the notion of credit, which is highly intangible. Being in Japan reconnected me to the tangibility of money. My teaching salary was paid by direct deposit, and I would immediately withdraw almost the full amount in cash, send a large chunk back to the U.S. to pay toward my debt, and put the rest in an envelope. I would divvy that out equally over four weeks until I was paid again. There was something really powerful about that experience in terms of how it shaped my relationship to money and credit. It felt so different to have bills in my wallet, and I became very aware of what expenditures I was making. With cards, there’s a disconnect—it’s not as immediate, you don’t feel it in the same way. That experience was formative with respect to later thoughts about the tangibility of money, which is itself only symbolic.

LLC: This makes me think of the pickles again and the “Breaking Even” show at Brown in 2013. There was a lot of translating, erasing, and fiscal accountability in that exhibition.
kra: The curator at the Bell Gallery was interested in Mischief in the Boneyard, an installation of slipcast dominoes, but we needed more for a full show. I said, “Well, I’ve got this crazy pickle idea…,” and that’s how “Breaking Even” started to come together. As the show developed over the next six months, it became clear that I was working to translate labor—creative input vs. output, cause and effect, and the cost of an experience both tangibly and metaphysically. These ideas are still captivating for me. Budget played into the development of the exhibition as well. To complete the show at the scale and on the timeline we were talking about, I had to dedicate every waking hour to it—there wasn’t time for another job. I drew up what I felt was a reasonable budget. I proposed a total of $11,000, with approximately $4,000 of that allocated for materials. After some back and forth with administrators, we landed on a $9,000 budget, so I wound up with around $5,000 to live on for five months, and that gradually became a major theme of the show—here’s the creative output of five months of labor. There were the dominoes, the pickles (which became meta in that they represented the energy invested in the making process and also required more labor), and the coins (also meta), which were essentially my means of publishing the budget of the show: 9,200 slipcast coins that visitors dropped into water, which then erased the work, and erased my labor.

It was very much about generating tension between the experiences on offer and what had to be sacrificed in order for them to exist. The show also asked: Is it worth more or less if it’s permanent or impermanent? The fact that it’s dissolvable, breakable, or can be eaten, does that render the work inherently less valuable? This felt especially pertinent in the context of the art market—even though in my mind, the most exciting aspects of all these works were the experiential moments people could have with them.

9200 dollars (or the funds invested in the installation), 2013. Porcelain greenware, Ball jars, and water, 60 x 24 x 16 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

LLC: Money in the art world is a big twisty secret that nobody wants to talk about. Nan Goldin started changing things by going after the Sacklers, and now there’s a reckoning across the board. You are part of that sea change and have clearly been working in this direction for some time, to the point where Elizabeth Warren came to see Forever in Your Debt and talk with you about the student debt crisis. What’s it like to have your work line up with such a salient political moment?
kra: This moment of alignment has been germinating for quite some time. I had the idea a decade ago, arising from my very personal experience with debt. The scale of this systemic failure was becoming clear to me in those early years after grad school; it was reinforced by the response of friends outside the U.S. when I told them about my idea for this project—their bewilderment at the sums we typically borrow for college made me realize just how absurd things had become. I spent years incubating the idea, writing and rewriting grant and fellowship proposals, riding the waves of many attempts, knowing I would need significant time and support to get things underway.

It is hugely meaningful to feel like I’m part of a larger conversation, a larger movement to change the structures and costs of higher education. And more generally, I absolutely feel like making artwork about money and talking openly and without shame about debt are empowering, urgent actions.

Forever in Your Debt, 2019–ongoing. Glazed, wheel-thrown stoneware and contributed coins, stoneware approx. 6 in. diameter each; overall dimensions variable. Photo: Sofia Taylor, Courtesy MASS MoCA

LLC: You’ve been at MASS MoCA every weekend for several months now, talking to visitors and explaining your installation and the debt crisis. That’s a lot of labor, and it reverses the typical narrative around invisible labor. What have these ongoing conversations with the public yielded?
kra: Thank you for acknowledging that labor. It’s been incredibly rewarding; it has also been a significant investment of time and energy and a durational exercise in presence. I’ve long been in awe of the generative capacity of conversation. Thanks to those moments, the gallery has become a container, a vessel for thought.

This aspect of the show has also been exciting for me in that I’ve realized it’s an expansion of some earlier examples of prodding established norms, conjuring new ways of inhabiting these spaces through the conceptual nuances of the work. This has been a slow but steady development in my practice since grad school—questioning and sometimes subverting the relationship between visitors and a gallery or museum setting, creating situations in which people actually touch the artwork or even walk on it, and carefully negotiating how this is framed. In a way, this framing becomes a medium in itself—how to invite and encourage participation without stating it directly. People are often surprised and delighted to find me there, and by the fact that they’re welcome to reach across the stanchion to deposit their change. Those reactions, for me, are indications that I’m treading on fertile ground.

Forever in Your Debt, 2019–ongoing. Glazed, wheel-thrown stoneware and contributed coins, stoneware approx. 6 in. diameter each; overall dimensions variable. View of installation at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design, Washington, DC. Photos: Llewellyn Hensley

LLC: You have a lot of trust in your audience. Like Mischief in the Boneyard, Forever in Your Debt is interactive and therefore more vulnerable than most installations. Someone could step into the bowl display and steal the money, though it’s mostly coins. It doesn’t appear to be all that much money collected in the bowls, which, again, speaks to intangibility.
kra: I love that about it, too, and the duality is part of what inspired me to make the work—that tension between perception and reality, and the fact that perception can skew both ways. I was thinking, for example, of the wide range of answers when people have to guess how much money is in a jar. When people walk up to me at the museum and ask how much money is there, I usually ask them to hazard a guess, and the answers have ranged from $600 to $5,000. Some folks have even guessed that it’s already the full amount of $37,000, when in fact earlier this year, it was only about $15,000. I am intrigued by this range of responses. What shapes someone’s perception? One person sees way more than it actually is, and another person walks up and perceives it to be way less.

In one of my pickle projects, I highlighted this intangibility in a related but different way. Opposite a spectrum of several hundred pints of pickles was a series of clay tablets tracking all of the incidental and unseen labor that went into making them. It was the first time I became hyper-focused on all of the unseen, invisible embedded tasks, efforts, and energies that are in everything we consume. I’ve been sitting with these questions for a long time, in my practice and in life in general. What had to be sacrificed in order to enable this experience that I’m having? How is value attributed to someone’s energetic output, and what is its relationship to what has been sacrificed, either in the making or the consumption? During my weekends at Forever in Your Debt, people often ask me about the bowls. Maybe a little more than half realize that I made them, and the rest will ask where I bought them. When I reply, “I made them, the labor is my own,” they say, “What, that’s incredible!” It’s always been very important to me that it’s my labor and that any other labor involved is acknowledged and credited.

kelli rae adams’s Forever in Your Debt remains on view at MASS MoCA through fall 2023.