On Wednesday, President Joe Biden made good on a campaign promise to provide student debt relief. His plan is designed to cancel up to $10,000 of federal student loan debt for people earning less than $125,000 a year, and $20,000 for Pell grant recipients.

For the 43 million Americans who are collectively carrying 1.7 trillion dollarsin student loan debt, this amount of forgiveness can seem like a drop in the bucket. For artist kelli rae adams, it’s literally a drop in a bowl.

To help people grasp the enormity of student loan debt, kelli rae adams has created a visual aid: a large-scale installation at MASS MoCA titled “Forever in Your Debt.” In this work, adams literally broke down the average student loan debt that a borrower carries — $37,000, according to federal data — into coins and divided them into hand-thrown bowls. Each of the 925 bowls holds approximately $40 in change, an amount that also reflects the dollar value of the labor and materials.

This is a photo of the installation, Forever in Your Debt. Rows of clay bowls with a red interior cover a wood floor. Some of the bowls are filled with coins--pennies, nickels and dimes.
Installation shot, Forever in your Debt at Mass MoCA
Phiotographer, Sofia Taylor Courtesy of Mass MoCA

The installation is based on adams' own experience. After paying off her undergraduate student debt, she went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design. While Biden’s student loan forgiveness will help, she describes her debt as still looming large.

“My hope is that this is the beginning of of a series of policy changes," she said.

As a way to illustrate the shared burden of student loan debt, this installation is also participatory. Visitors are encouraged to drop their loose change into a bowl. As the coins accumulate, the red interior of the bowl — a reference to “being in the red” — slowly gets hidden. People also have the option to contribute funds online. Those who donate enough to fill a bowl will eventually receive one of the bowls from the installation once the project is complete.

“I think giving people a way to conceptualize these larger, in some sense incomprehensible sums, through a physical object feels important and exciting to me,” said adams.

Adams has been interacting with and observing people at her installation throughout the month of August. She particularly enjoys seeing people impulsively pat their pockets looking for change to participate with her project, an act of solidarity that has overwhelmed her.

“I expected, I think, to have a bit more debate or push back perhaps,” says adams. “I've certainly seen people become emotional when witnessing or walking up and experiencing the work.”

The emotional resonance of adams’ installation is one that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a champion of canceling student loan debt, recognized in a YouTube video. “I have been especially taken by kelli rae adams' 'Forever in Your Debt' installation," Warren said. "This is an incredible piece of art that so clearly demonstrates the magnitude of the student debt crisis.”

At one point, adams considered documenting her conversations with museum-goers but ultimately chose not to do so.

“I decided that the most important thing I could do was just be exceedingly present in the moment to receive the story. I think of it as a long-term exchange,” said adams. “Which, for me, feels very poignant in the way in which it reflects the long term nature of debt and the sort of indeterminate period of time over which this relationship is occurring.”

Adams will be on site at the museum on select weekends throughout the fall. Those seeking to meet the artist can check the exhibition page on MASS MoCA’swebsite for details and updates.