cathARTsis: Artists depict the impact of student debt — and what it would mean to cancel it — in a digital exhibition

collage of artwork depicting impacts of student debt
From top left moving clockwise: “Indulgences” by Justin Cameron, “No Approach” by Michael Moore, “Indulgences” by Justin Cameron (another view), “Lichen” by Serenity Kenan, Image 2 of a self portrait series by MeriAllen Krueger, and “we want ur art but we wont pay” by Ally Zlatar.

In December 2021, TakeAction’s Student Debt Cancellation Crew opened a call for art to show the contrast between a country with $1.8 trillion of student loan debt and what would be possible if our elected officials canceled student debt.

Artists living in Minnesota, Texas, and abroad responded with compelling pieces that show the devastating personal and community impacts of education debt. With ceramics, paint, photographs and even a Charon’s obol, these artists convey complex emotions — from isolation, despair, and absurdity, to humor, interconnectedness, and hope. 

“Our crew was stunned with the quality of the art we received, as well as impressed by the ability of the artists to be so vulnerable and brave in the face of the shame and stigma that too often exists around student debt,” says Megan Finegan, a leader in the Student Debt Cancellation Crew. “These pieces sparked emotional, visceral conversations, and they need to be shared and seen.”

“For many elected officials — including President Biden — student debt doesn’t feel real,” she continues. “For many, it’s a distant experience that seems easily surmountable. For those of us with student debt, we know this is not true. That’s why the stories these artists tell with their work are so important. Who can be more honest about the real impact of student debt than people experiencing it? These artists convey emotions and experiences that are too often absent from the media’s narrative about student debt.”

Join the artists for a discussion of their pieces at the Student Debt Crew’s cathARTsis event on February 17th

Serenity Kenan received the grand prize for her work, a ceramics piece entitled ‘Lichen.’ All artists received a copy of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition by Debt Collective for submitting their work. 



Artist: Serenity Kenan (she/her), Knife River, MN
Occupation: Artist and teacher

Artist statement:

This visual art by Skenan Ceramics measuring 12 by 6 inches is a three-dimensional representation of lichen that grows in the woodlands of northern Minnesota. The growth of lichen in an area is an indicator of healthy air quality; Every community on earth is dependent upon quality oxygen. The presence of lichen indicates safety and security for years to come for all the creatures in an ecosystem. Lichen is a metaphor for my family’s security and the health we could have if we didn’t have to navigate education debt year in and year out. 

Self portrait series

Artist: MeriAllen Krueger (she/her), Nashville, TN and San Marcos, TX
Occupation: Resident Assistant at a boarding school
Instagram: @meriallencaysenphoto

Artist statement:

These are selected self-portraits from a larger series I am working on for my Thesis that resulted from an inability to communicate the strong feelings I was experiencing. The portraits became a catharsis, an exaltation, a release of those emotions. The last two years have proved trying for me, culminating from the pandemic, and getting ready to graduate college into a world of unknowns and lots of debt. It’s a feeling of overwhelming loss.

The first image is a display of desperation and hopelessness. A self portrait in eerie, dark lighting on the floor of my bedroom looking up for any semblance of calm, peace, answers, and liberation.

The second image is simply a portrait of me drowning. It comes from that exact feeling of drowning in my experiences of the world. It is about giving in to the darkness, letting my body sink into the cold. 

The third image is one of anxious disposition. The alarming red lighting, and me clawing at my own skin, represents how I feel in my subconscious anxiety that sets off alarms in my head and leaves physical traces on my body.


Nail, paint, bachelor’s degree, and Charon’s Obol
Artist: Justin Cameron (he/him), Minneapolis, MN
Debt amount: $37,521.36 

Artist statement: 

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

– Johann Tetzel ca. 1517

There is a thread throughout history that I find interesting. The wayfarer or the ferryman who demands payment to carry someone or someone’s soul to the “other side”, wherever that is (often unknown, but implied to be a better existence). 

In ancient Greece and Rome, it was customary for an Obol, a coin of small denomination, to be placed on the eyes or mouth of a family member before burial or cremation. This was done in order to pay Charon, the ferryman of the dead. Some of the dead remained with their Obols and sometimes bodies were later discovered by archeologists with no Obol accompanying them. Maybe they were buried without an Obol, or maybe an opportunist swiped the money, or maybe it melted in the funeral pyre, who knows?

Buying “Indulgences” from the Catholic church in the 1500’s was basically paying shipping insurance for the soul of a family member. The fear of being stranded on the banks of eternity with no way to cross the river was very profitable for the church. All they had to do was offer a piece of paper ensuring that a loved one was upgraded to a better existence.  

Colleges and universities have perfected the practice of being a gatekeeper organization that can collect a toll on one’s transfer from a lower existence to an upper level. Many of us were given the message, spoken or unspoken, that being without a degree would be a miserable existence. Many parents offered as much as they could offer to ensure their child had a chance to have agency in their own future. The fee for buying a piece of paper is so high that many graduates who were loaned money find themselves in economic purgatory/limbo indefinitely.

Human figure alone on a forest floor

“No Approach”

Oil painting on canvas
Artist: Michael Moores (he/him), Duluth, MN
Occupation: Hotel Front Desk 
Debt amount: $45,000
Instagram: @michaelmooresart 

Artist statement:

“No Approach” is an oil painting on canvas. The main thing that my piece is trying to get across is the sense of isolation you can feel when you are struggling with huge amounts of debt. It shows how you can feel like a ghost in an environment in which you always assumed you would be able to participate fully. This piece is a visual representation of being unwillingly paused in your tracks while you see others around you continue with so-called “universal life milestones.” It shows how student debt can often be as much of a psychological hurdle as a monetary burden.

Figures with cartoonish heads in many colors. Superimposed on them is text in white that reads: "We want ur art, but we won't pay!!!"

“we want ur art but we wont pay”

Artist: Ally Zlatar (she/her), Glasgow, Scotland
Occupation: Doctoral Student
Debt amount: $55,000
Instagram: @allycardone 

Artist statement:

As an art student, I’ve found that the institutions that are trying to educate us are also trying to profit from student labor. Our art is shown on campus for publicity, but schools will not update facilities nor lower tuition fees. Visual art students have some of the highest student loans with the lowest scholarship rates and support from education and government administration. My art reflects my frustration and struggles with the current system.