Artists tackle student debt at the Recess Gallery

Let’s face it, most students today are bundling themselves up in debt, and they aren’t the only ones. From credit card debt to payday loans, there’s a debt cycle out there for just about everyone. This week, several artists will be addressing that fact in a multimedia experience at Southeast Portland’s own Recess Gallery.

The show, titled Paying Off My Student Loans, will exhibit on Saturday, May 10. It will feature Vancouver artist Heidi Nagtegaal, who is designing and selling shirts as a means to pay off her own student loans. The exhibition will incorporate slogans, banners and information about her homegrown, community-oriented projects. In addition, Recess Gallery will host a performative lecture on debt by Portland-based artists and Portland State instructors, Anna Gray and Ryan Paulsen.

“[Nagtegaal] is really special to me as an artist. I’ve been following her work for a long time, and [have been] friends with her for awhile as well,” said Recess director and curator Tori Abernathy. “Her art practice is very much tied into her personhood and her community. To know anything about [Nagtegaal’s] work is to know her as well and to get to see her world. It’s an interesting world that’s really marked by these ideas of grassroots movements and community networking.”

Much of Nagtegaal’s work focuses around community building and artist support. In addition to her own making, Nagtegaal has hosted artists at her house in a residency program called the Hammock Residency. Through the residency program, she offers space to other artists as well as assistance in advising and in facilitation of shows based around their work.

Now, for her current project, Nagtegaal is reconnecting with the artists of the Hammock Residency and others to tackle her own debt issues. To pay off her debt, the artist is creating 1,000 shirts and apparel items at $20 apiece. She is also bundling the shirts with hand-crafted cords as a symbol of the bundling of her own debt. Abernathy pointed out that, as a collaborative effort, some of the materials and the designs have come from the artists she has helped.

“She is working with people who she’s already helped,” Abernathy said. “She’s facilitated their practice through the residency. These people are giving back by screen printing, helping her find shirts and the like. Everything in the project, such as inks, designs and the shirts themselves, has been sourced from the community.”

Artists Anna Gray and Ryan Paulsen will also present at Recess during Nagtegaal’s exhibition. The PSU art instructors will lecture about debt in a talk that will include performative and music elements. They will bounce from student debt to those forms of debt that target the working and poor classes, such as payday loans.

“We’ve read a lot and thought a lot about student debt and the ways that, for the middle class, its really changing things over recent years,” Gray said. “But there are other forms of debt that are more insidious and more problematic. So this is the first time we’ll be talking about that.”

Abernathy noted that she wanted to bring Paulsen and Gray into the conversation after witnessing one of their talks at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Though the artists all address debt and the economy in their work, they approach the issue from different angles.

“I love [Gray] and [Paulsen] so much. I think so much of their work is so relevant to this sort of project,” Abernathy said. “Heidi brings something really personal to this kind of work that we can all digest, but [Gray] and [Paulsen] can really handle all of these abstract concepts and really break them down in a very poetic way. Also the way that they work together is very beautiful.”

As a married couple, Gray and Paulsen regard their work together overall as part of their practice. In addition to the making of work and the building of their family, the pair also teaches together at PSU. Gray noted that they work in a range of mediums and processes, all dependent on the needs of a given project.

“We work in whatever feels appropriate,” she said. “We’ve been together for awhile, like eight years, but I also think of us as new. We’re constantly reinventing the wheel. We might use photography, printmaking or drawing, but we’re always trying to think of new ways to use them.”

As a lecture, their work at Recess will likely reflect some of their work as adjunct professors at PSU. Gray explained that she and Paulsen remain aware of their own debt and the debt being accrued by their current students. They try to keep students engaged with the reality of a growing debt burden through the course of their instruction, even though they feel some guilt as instructors in the system.

“Every night, and every class that we teach, we feel that we’re kind of complicit in the situation,” she said. “But I also think of every night as an opportunity to say something. I think it’s been really interesting to see, just in the last five years, the changes in conversation. People are coming into class now already feeling that there’s a lot at stake. It was harder to talk about the politics of that situation five years ago than it is now.”

As an alternative exhibition space, Recess has dealt with socioeconomic issues before, such as unemployment. Abernathy pointed out that debt was another relevant issue and explained that the arts needed to comment on the issue, to bring imagination and reform into the conversation.

“It’s really important now because there are a lot of things that have limited our view to have a positive outlook on the future,” she said. “I think that it’s all the more important and vital to be having a conversation about these kind of things, especially through the arts, because it hopefully gets a lot of folks involved and brings in room for imagination.”

The exhibition could be the last of its kind at Recess Gallery, in its current incarnation. Abernathy acknowledged that Recess would be closing its doors due to leasing issues, but also expressed hope that the project would not end altogether. Others in the community have stepped up to support the gallery. On May 27, Holocene will host a benefit show in the Recess’ name.

But Abernathy was upbeat about her overall experience with Recess so far. She pointed to working from the heart as one of the key components to running a successful alternative arts space.

“If you’re able to do something that’s not commercial, you do have the liberty to experiment,” she said. “It just takes having a desire to experiment with what would be the best model and testing them out. Trying out different modes. Just remember to stay true to your ideals, whatever your ideals are. Stay true, and be nice.”