“The Borderlands is a place that inspires those of us who look for the light in the shadows.” — Raechel Running
Raechel Running’s life is a river winding through contiguous regions, braiding currents from each to create multicultural art. A photographer, she assembles images from throughout the American Southwest, Mexico, and South America, incorporating textiles, paint, and small objects to create multimedia experiences of people and places. Her compositions astonish; their beauty is original, sometimes iconic, and always bold.
Much of Raechel’s portraiture and other compositions capture popular culture in an at once desolate and vivid part of the world: the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. There, everyday elements of cultures combine, even as the politics of national identity–Mexican, Anglo, Indigenous–contrast acutely. Raechel’s lens interprets everything from borderland cowboy culture, farm life in the valley, and small town relics to the wild places of rivers and deserts, and does so by blending artifacts of the old and the new to be found in all of these places.
“I believe words and images are stronger used together,” she says. “Since I was twelve years old, I’ve kept journals and notebooks. I integrate the journaling process into my photo illustrations. Sometimes a quote or an image I’ve found inspires a new way to tell the stories.”
Leaving her home in Flagstaff, Arizona, Raechel spent five years in Northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre Range and in rural villages throughout Chihuahua and Sonora. She has lived in the Casas Grandes Valley, an archaeologically and agriculturally rich area only 100 miles south of the US-Mexico border. About this, she says, “As I learned more about the history of the region, my work changed. I went into the fields and deep into The Sierras. I visited ranches and rodeos, cock fights, spiritual ceremonies and documented everyday life.”
Paquimé, as the Casas Grandes Valley was called in Pre-Colombian times, was a trade and cultural hub among indigenous peoples who arrived from all directions. It’s still a place of migrations and fertile valleys, and home to a center for artists who are reviving the distinctive ceramic art of the village of of Mata Oritz.
More than 450 potters now work in Mata Oritz, a village that was on the verge of desertion just thirty years ago. This renaissance began with an inspired friendship between native resident and master potter, Juan Quezada, who experimented with local clay and pigments, and US anthropologist, Spencer MacCallum. They have worked together for nearly four decades. Today, Mata Oritz potters are world renowned.
In 2006, MacCallum invited Raechel to be an artist-in-residence, to live and work in Mata Oritz, in an 1870 adobe house. The dream was to create a center for travelers, artists, and researchers interested in the region. Today, the village is home to a renaissance in the Mata Oritz (Paquimé) ceramic arts and the development of contemporary iterations of that ancient style. Raechel has since contributed numerous photographs, as well as website design and writing to the success of this dream, known as the Center for Casas Grandes Studies.
Most recently, Raechel helped organize an exhibit in partnership with the Flagstaff Cultural Partners, Borderlands Sierra Club, Northern Arizona Univeristy, and volunteers from No More Deaths. The dynamic community exhibit is titled “BEYOND BORDERS, The Fence, The People, The Land” and explores the cultural and land connections of the Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico Borderlands.
The sister exhibit, Raechel’s third exhibition of her visual odyssey in Mexico, is titled “NEPANTLA: Tierra Entre Medio/Between Worlds”, and is at the Flagstaff Photography Center through the end of November. It is a response to the hardships and tensions in the region, and the survival of beauty amidst it all. Raechel says, “In my art and activism I try to overcome despair and to make visual connections for people to foster kinship and hope in these times of change. Borders exist between people and countries but it is also the place where we can unite.”
Raechel is now collaborating with author Craig Childs on a project that combines words and images. The work is supported by The Better Bombshell, a publication project that aims to generate insights into emerging female role models.
Raechel uses her work to advance many non-profit organizations that serve social and environmental needs. Among them is the Mexico Program of One Heart World-Wide, which trains community members and outreach workers to provide obstetrical and neonatal care to indigenous women in Mexico’s Copper Canyon region. These women, called Tarahumara (or Rarámuri in their own language), represent only 3% of the Mexico’s population but account for 38% of all maternal deaths. Most live in small settlements at least three hours away from the nearest health post and a least a day away from the nearest facility equipped to handle deliveries.
One Heart President and Founder, Arlene Samen, says, “Raechel has done so much to highlight the plight of the Tarahumara women in the Copper Canyon, who die needlessly at home due to lack of access to care. Through her photography, Raechel has brought much-needed attention to the cause.”
As Raechel puts it herself: ”What I have learned from my time in Mexico is, it’s not about being afraid but about the spirit of resiliency and courage to dream against the odds. ”
Organizations Raechel supports with her work:
One Heart World-Wide | www.oneheartworld-wide.org
One Heart World-Wide improves maternal and neo-natal health among indigenous, Tarahumara communities in Mexico.
Somos La Semilla | www.somoslasemilla.org
Somos La Semilla is a grassroots organization that works in Southern Arizona and Mexican border towns to create healthy food networks.
The Amazon Aid Foundation | Raechel Running bio
The Amazon Aid Foundation is a non-profit that raises awareness about environmental issues in the Amazon through creative collaborative art, music, and science projects.
Published July 11, 2013