Photographer chronicles African-American traditions in landscaping across the South
Where might you find whitewashed tires used as a fence, conch shells delineating spaces for flowers, aluminum wash tubs serving as planters and screechy old gliders where visitors can sit and chat?
If you looked for them 30 or 40 years ago, you would have found them in many African-Americans' gardens. But those gardens, which included an array of gifted and found objects, are rarely seen today. Such spaces, though, are captured in a book by photographer Vaughn Sills, who spent 20 years photographing them throughout the South.
"Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens," published by Trinity University Press, includes 80 photographs of gardens and yards and some owners. Among those spaces, which have been compared to outsider art, are ones on Johns, St. Helena and Wadmalaw islands as well as in Beaufort, Bishopville, Burton, Columbia and
Most of the spaces Sills was drawn to included numerous objects, she says. But, some, such as one in South Carolina, were different. She describes one as very spare and more yard than garden. The space, featured on Page 65 of the book, is on Wadmalaw Island and belongs to Gilbert Grimball.
Sills was not interested in the array of mature fruit trees in Grimball's yard. It was the mimosa tree contrasting with a low white bench and hot house he made -- using doors he found at a dump and recycled -- that attracted the photographer to his yard.
When the mimosa tree blooms, it shades the bench, which becomes a place where family and friends can sit, as did Grimball with his late wife, Evelyn, he says.
"I love to put seeds in the ground and see what happens to them," says Grimball, who grew up on a family farm across from his home. "Right now, if I see something a little different, I pull a sprig and plant it and see what happens. I just love to plant things."
Sills' journeys to find these special spaces began during a visit to Athens, Ga., for another assignment, she says. A friend studying African-American architecture took her to visit some interesting houses. At one, she became as fascinated with the garden as she was with the house and began to photograph it.
"It was enchanting," says Sills, who talks about the plants spread all over the yard and the flowers sharing space with a tree. Objects as different as the figure of a chicken and one reflecting the culture of ancient Greece had found a place there, too.
Afterward, Sills, also a photography professor at Simmons College in Boston, began looking for the magic she found in that Athens garden in others, she says. As she did, she learned about the role of circles represented by whitewashed tires and other figures and how they spoke to a continuation of life. She also read about turning bottles upside down on trees and the tradition that they can trap evil spirits. Her research focused on the studies published by scholars.
The photographer says she found meaning in spaces where symbols are mixed with practical objects such as chicken coops. However, she also says she is still at a loss to describe the attraction other than to say it is spiritual, soft and almost magical.
Sills says her goal was not to cover all African-American gardening styles. The photographer says she wanted to capture only some whose symbols and architecture still give guidance on how humans should conduct their lives. In that way, ancestors continue to have a say.
Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705 or email@example.com.