Julie Rae Powers cuts to the heart of Appalachia with ‘Deep Ruts’

The photographer will celebrate the release of her deeply personal new photobook with a launch party at ROY G BIV on Saturday, April 27.
"Self-portrait as I attempt to reveal my secrets" (2012)
"Self-portrait as I attempt to reveal my secrets" (2012)Julie Rae Powers

When in 2013 Julie Rae Powers started more intently on the work that would become Deep Ruts, she envisioned her photographs standing as proof that queer Appalachians exist. But in the years since, the concept has continued to deepen and evolve in myriad subtle ways.

“That [original] idea is certainly still part of it. But I think as I matured in my practice and learned a lot through life and my own experiences, I realized this project is so much more than just that,” said Powers, who will celebrate the release of her new photobook with a launch party at ROY G BIV on Saturday, April 27. (The photographer’s work is also featured in “Scatter These Hills with Beauty: Queer Appalachian Art,” curated by Marcus Morris and now on display at the Franklinton gallery.) “It was always deeply personal, but I think it became personal in a different way, connecting myself to my own histories, to my own identities, and trying to really place myself in my own world. … It was asking what it means to be a queer person who’s butch and trans from Appalachia, which has a strong masculine history in coal mining and carpentry and railroad culture. And asking what it means to grow up in an environment that says these two things are incompatible. So, it was really trying to find my own place in my own world.”

For Powers, this period of internal exploration kicked off when she moved from Harrisonburg, Virginia, to Columbus to attend graduate school at Ohio State University. Settled in a new place, Powers opted for the first time to embrace every aspect of herself – from her queerness to her given name, Julie Rae, from which she’d long shied. “I’d been so stifled and closeted for so long,” she said. “And this was a new place where I didn’t know anyone. It felt like a fresh start.”

While the early photographs emerged during a time when Powers had thrown herself headlong into a wide-open future, the images featured in Deep Ruts linger on a place connected with her past. There are photographs of men barbecuing on pits constructed of cinder blocks, panoramic Appalachian river scenes, and glistening, rain-slick highways cut like scars through the mountainside. 

Collectively, the images read as the work of a person who continues to love a place intensely even in those times it lets them down. And there’s an intimacy and vulnerability on display throughout that makes even the everyday scenes feel somehow touched by the divine.

In this way, Powers’ work is something of a departure from the approach photographers have historically taken with Appalachia, with Powers describing how the camera has often been deployed as “a tool of oppression” in the region. “If you Google ‘Appalachian photos,’ even today in 2024, what are the first images that come up? It’s the 1960s campaign for the war on poverty,” she said. “And that’s a very particular set of images that sort of position Appalachians as poor folk who are hopeless and without resources or intellect. And that’s a tool of oppression, where you take a population and convince everyone they’re not worth anything, and then you can harm them and take all of their resources. And what happened in Appalachia is happening in Palestine, and it’s happening in Flint, Michigan, and we could go on and on ad nauseum.”

Powers grew up in the heart of Appalachia, spending her early years in Delbarton, West Virginia, where her father worked in the coal mines. The family then relocated just south of Roanoke, Virginia, when her dad left the mines in search of less hazardous work, landing a job as a railroad laborer with Norfolk Southern. In these early years, Powers said she often struggled with feelings of isolation that she would ward off by immersing herself in books. “And, over time, that developed into wanting to be creative,” she said. “But for a long time, I felt like I was the only artist in the family, and it became this isolated experience.”

This idea persisted even when Powers started taking her first photographs early in high school, using a Kodak point and shoot pilfered from her dad. But as she started to find her voice as a photographer, and particularly when she started in on the images that would become Deep Ruts, taking pictures of her family, her Appalachian surroundings and, increasingly, herself, fissures began to form in those early prejudices, with Powers taking note of the different types of art around which she grew up.

“Part of the endeavor with the book was realizing there are lots of artists in my family. It just didn’t always look like art with a capital A,” she said. “We have amazing carpenters in my family, and they would build houses and garages together. My uncle hand builds cabinets and porch swings. And my aunt plays music in the church and does theater. And that was always there.”

Other revelations uncovered in the creative process were manifold, Powers said, describing the decade-long journey to Deep Ruts as one in which she was continually broken down and built anew. 

“There was this persistent need for autonomy and to write my own story and find my own answers,” she said. “And now that ‘print’ has been hit on the book, I’ve realized the complexity of this experience – the hurt and pain, the joy – I can put it down. … There’s an evolution happening, and I’m realizing that I don’t have to make work that’s so overt about my queer Appalachian experience, because anything I make is a queer Appalachian experience. So, I’m feeling a bit freed, where now I can make work that’s maybe not as heavy, or maybe it’s just different. But I’m definitely not letting go of all of those past selves, and they’re definitely coming with me.”

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