Conversations in Clay

RISD alum Kelli Rae Adams explores big ideas through her sculpture work


Artist Kelli Rae Adams uses tactile mediums, such as sculpture and ceramics to explore how people think about labor. Her installations, during her time in RISD’s graduate program in sculpture and in exhibits at Brown University’s Bell Gallery, the Wassaic Project in New York, and museums and studios in Denmark, the UK and Portugal have featured clay sculptures and pickling jars – both of which are often reused when the exhibition ends.

Following a bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts and Spanish at Duke University, Kelli spent five years in the town of Kyushu, Japan, teaching English and learning to make pottery under teacher Tesruo Hatabe. She “fell in love with the place and the material” and also with yoga and meditation. For her final critique at RISD, she created a yoga mat out of 80 pounds of clay and performed her practice on it, with a stop-motion video that showed imprints being made in the mat without her body in the frame. The clay was recycled at the end.

Sometimes, she will have an entire floor of clay for visitors to remove their shoes and step on; one depicted a ten-by-ten-foot space with paint showing the types of tiny living areas and dimensions that so many Third World families occupy. A sculpture of clay dominoes, fired and unfired, has featured in many shows, with the ancient three monkeys motif on their backs. More than once, a visitor has accidentally knocked over the first domino, and the rest have come crashing down.

While some guests and the venue itself were initially shocked at the unplanned chaos, Kelli says she secretly “kind of wanted it to happen all along – I just hadn’t yet gone there myself and tested it.” When the Wassaic Project finally agreed to allow deliberate viewer participation, Kelli found her own “intentions for interacting” challenged when she arrived one day to find kids building towers out of the dominoes.

At first uncertain, she realized, “It’s totally my yoga practice. It’s that letting go. So often the work is talking to me or teaching me lessons I need to learn about impermanence.”
Kelli’s most recent exhibition, “Curing Time,” teamed up with Willa Van Nostrand at her new World’s Fair Gallery on Broadway. A rainbow of jars of pickled, local seasonal produce fills one wall; the other holds clay tablets “tracking incidental labor” with marks counting numbers of hours spent, for example, in washing dishes and making trips to farmers markets. The USDA recommends two pints of food per day, so each pair of jars represents a day’s efforts. In some exhibits, individuals have been able to barter goods and services in exchange for one of the jars. The exhibit poses the question: “What’s your currency?”

Kelli’s family has practiced pickling for generations. “Yes, they’re this beautiful aesthetic thing,” she says, “but I also think that they speak to labor in a pretty strong way.” Even if it’s not explicit, she says, “there’s a read of, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of work’” – something that a can of produce at the supermarket does not convey.

This year, provided certain grants are secured, Kelli is planning a “fairly ambitious” project involving a cross-country trip to address the student loan debt which is “crippling the economy.”