Rachel Boillot earned a BA degree in sociology from Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts; a BFA in photography from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University, Durham. Her work has been funded by the Annenberg Foundation, Los Angeles, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, D.C., and can be found in the permanent collections of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, and the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, Durham, among others. Boillot teaches in the Art Department at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. She is also the director and co-producer of the Cumberland Folklife Project, a multifaceted documentary project that captures the arts, crafts, music, and oral history of the Cumberland Gap’s rich cultural heritage.
The work included in Southbound is drawn from three of Boillot’s recent projects. Post Script documents the disappearance of many rural United States post offices, capturing not only the disappearance of the physical locations from which communities sent and received mail, but also the subsequent erasure of many zip codes as numerical markers of place. Her 38669, Postmistress Ida (2013) captures the titular postmistress of a zip code that serves the rural 1.35-square-mile area of Sherard, Mississippi. Ida’s dark skin and hoe handle, along with the red fire extinguisher propping open the front door, are the only elements that stand out from the ethereal creams and tans of the room. Ida’s measured gaze inspired poet Nikky Finney to pen Black Woman Moose Lodge #719 for the Southbound project. In her poem, Finney imagines Ida as the fictional Ludie Mae Green, who writes to her literary hero, Zora Neale Hurston, of her reflections on the systemic exploitation of African American women in the South.
Created for Where We Live: A North Carolina Portrait, a project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the Después del Día series offers a window onto the lives of one of the fastest-growing populations in the New South, the migrant Hispanic agricultural workers who toil in hot Southern fields. Boillot’s series reflects on the transient living spaces these workers occupy, with all of their accompanying degradations and self-made dignities. It is also a response to 1971–72 photographic series titled North Carolina made by her mentor and fellow Southbound artist, Alex Harris. During that earlier time, the faces of the Southern migrant workers were largely black, not brown.
Boillot’s Macon County, North Carolina (2014) places the viewer in a sterile cinderblock structure with plastic sheeting lining the ceiling. The four visible beds, separated just enough to retain a modicum of privacy, personify the four individuals who must carve out small corners of comfort and some sense of self in a temporary shared space. The central single bed is neatly made and accented with a teddy bear, with bottles of laundry detergent lined in an ordered row below. The worker who wakes up in this bed before the sun rises may not have much control in their life, but they can order their twenty square feet in the universe.
The Silent Ballad series explores the musical heritage and related traditions of the Cumberland Plateau in the mountains of East Tennessee. While making this series, Boillot was welcomed into the Sharp family, a multigenerational group of talented musicians and storytellers. Geraldine at the Sharp Family Reunion in Pickett State Park (2014) meditates on the cascading curls of the Sharp family matriarch, whose white hair, flowing gently below her waist, is anachronistic in our culture of grandmothers with closely cropped, hot-rolled coils. The picture is still and simple, yet proud and certain, a metaphor for the deep-rooted traditions of the Sharps and their neighbors. In this and other evocative images, Boillot’s eye for detail and ability to form deeply empathetic relationships with her subjects, who often become beloved friends, allow viewers to glimpse worlds that they might otherwise never have the opportunity to encounter.