A Look at “Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens”
What would you do with a camera and time to investigate a new place? For photographer Vaughn Sills, a walk through Bea Robinson’s garden in Athens, Georgia inspired a 20 year journey that resulted in a series of photographs that she’s collected in her book Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens (2010). Focused on the South, her book covers gardens in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, North and South Carolina, and Arkansas, providing viewers with a glimpse of the American landscape that can otherwise be difficult to find.
Through her skillful compositions with gentle light, crisp focus, and tight frames, Sills invites us into intimate spaces, given meaning not only through her lens, but by the gardeners who create them. In these images, viewers will find inventive, artful, and spiritual approaches to garden and landscape design, using wide varieties of plant life and material culture. From Canna lilies to old tires, gardeners interweave these elements to create meaningful places. The specific garden arrangements Sills’ captures reflect the personal tastes, styles, and circumstances of the gardeners who create them. At the same time, each garden often has common elements (such as shells, figures, urns, and bottle trees) that make them recognizable a genre today, and connect them to lager cultural traditions and aesthetics in African American and African culture that have been changed and adapted over time.
While the gardens and gardeners Sills photographs are often few and far between, like the gardens themselves, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As a collection, Sills’ images are a distinct contribution to American landscape photography and the history of garden design because they demonstrate how African Americans have contributed to the making and meaning of the American landscape. By helping to preserve this legacy, these photographs and gardens are also a poignant reminder that America’s cultural landscape is influenced by the spirit and creativity of many.
You can find some of Sills’ photographs on her website. The photographs from her book are currently on display at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
For more on the topic of African American gardens see:
Glave, Dianne. “‘a garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design’: Rural African American Women, Gardening, Progressive Reform, and the Foundation of An African American Environmental Perspective” in Environmental History, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Jul., 2003).
Gundaker, Grey and Judith McWillie. No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work, 2005.
Gundaker, Grey. ed. Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground, 1998.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, 1983.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, 1983.
Westmacott, Richard. African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South, 1992.