African-American gardens rooted in tradition
"Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens" by Vaughn Sills.
From the book "Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens" by Vaughn Sills: portrait of Annie Belle Sturgehill in Athens, Georgia, circa 1988.
From the book "Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens" by Vaughn Sills: Photo of Annie Belle Sturgehill's garden in Athens, Georgia, circa 1988.
From the book "Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens" by Vaughn Sills: Photo of Bea Robinson in Athens, Georgia, 1987.
Photo of a garden in Wiles County, Georgia, circa 1993, from Vaughn Sills' book "Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens."
Share with others:
Every once in a while, a unique and wonderful book appears. "Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens" from Trinity University Press is one of those extraordinary books.
Author and photographer Vaughn Sills, 64, takes us on a journey through the South chronicling the most unlikely gardens, all presented in gorgeous black and white. The gardens are improbable because they aren't the perfectly manicured, formal landscapes we're used to seeing in coffee-table books.
She began photographing these Southern gardens in 1987 when she visited one in Athens, Ga., with a friend. "When I first saw this garden, what I felt was something mystical, sort of magical," she said.
Under a portrait of the gardener, Ms. Sills writes: "Light glowed throughout Bea Robinson's garden. It reflected off brown bottles laid in a circle and bathed two sculptures, a vaguely mythological standing figure and a chicken."
At the time it was a personal photography project. She drove through little towns on country roads all through the South, discovering a wide variety of fascinating subjects. Ms. Sills would spend a few hours at each garden with her large-format film camera meeting gardeners. As she collected more and more interesting pictures, she realized it should be a book.
Her inspiration might have come from childhood. She moved to Louisiana as a 10-year-old, seeing segregation firsthand. It opened her eyes to how African-Americans were treated and it was something that was never far from her heart.
"I think from that point on, I cared about the issue of race in our society," she said.
The genius in this book lies in how it will open some readers' eyes to the beauty of these landscapes: "We often overlook things that are right in front of us because it hasn't been valued before," she said.
One photograph of Annie Belle Sturgehill's garden, also in Georgia, shows a collage made of everything from a mayonnaise jar to an American flag. Each day, items would be added or moved. In another image, potted plants share outdoor shelves with egg cartons, lilies and a potpourri of objects all carefully placed by the gardener.
The author believes this tradition of aesthetic gardening can be traced back to Africa.
"I think the style of gardening that really attracted me is somewhat disappearing, although it's really also evolving," she said.
Ms. Sills, who teaches photography at Simmons College in Boston, hopes that readers will be affected in the same way she has by these gardens.
"I want people to see what's happening here as beautiful and not be limited to understanding that there are only some kinds of beauty. There are many kinds."
Her definition of beauty?
"When we can create some kind of order and understanding of the chaos of our life, that's beauty."
And that's what this book is all about.
First Published January 22, 2011 12:00 am