Gardens of African-Americans in South are full of symbolism, as seen in Cleveland Botanical Garden exhibit
Posted July 03, 2013 in Articles
Author: Roxanne Washington
On a warm September afternoon in 1987, professional photographer Vaughn Sills came across a garden in Athens, Ga., that fascinated her, although she wasn't sure why.
The garden belonged to Bea Robinson, an older African-American woman. It wasn't a lush, picture-perfect garden worthy of the pages of Fine Gardening magazine or a spread in a Martha Stewart publication. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Rather than containing boldly colored flowers planted in an orderly fashion, the garden held many botanicals that seemed to grow wild, as if Robinson preferred to let nature take its course. On the ground, brown bottles lying in a circle reflected the sunlight. A thick pipe wrapped in cloth stuck straight up from the ground. Two stone statues, one seemingly mythological and the other a chicken, also were far from traditional landscape decor.
Eager to capture whatever had her entranced, Sills grabbed her camera, loaded it with black-and-white film, and photographed the garden from several angles. Sills would go on to traverse small towns and rural areas photographing more than 80 gardens -- and their typically older creators -- at the homes of African-Americans in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
In a telephone interview from her home in Boston, Sills, a professor emerita of Simmons College in Boston, said she came to learn that, as with blues music, these gardens are infused with vestiges of slavery that lend them cultural and historical significance
"There are actually gardening traditions that trace back to Africa," Sills said. "I fell in love with the spaces and the feeling that they had."
The pipe in Robinson's yard? Sills learned that vertical pipes in the ground, which she saw in several gardens, are meant to allow the spirits of ancestors to communicate with the living. She was intrigued by upside-down bottles hanging from tree limbs.
"Those are meant to capture evil spirits that might get into the yard," Sills said. "Many of the bottles in gardens that I photographed are blue because the color blue is supposed to repel evil."
Gardens, such as that of Eula Mary Owen of Jackson, Miss., include splashes of white. Tires and stones painted white ring Owen's front porch and the side of her small house.
"The color white is a symbol of good character, and it's a reminder to live our lives in the best way," said Sills, adding that as a child living in Louisiana she had seen such gardens but never knew there was symbolism involved.
Sills found that soil in many yards is raked in a circular manner to give the space a calm, open feeling and to keep evil away. Yards are left gateless for a purpose.
"Very, very seldom is there a gate," Sills added. "It's so that visitors always feel welcome."
Because of economic conditions, old items are reused as flower containers and the like. In one garden, that of Alfred Lee Johnson of Eutaw, Ala., an old swing set is reinvented to hold hanging plant baskets. L.V. Hull of Kosciusko, Miss., added a bright spot to her yard with a tower of brightly painted tires.
Sills photographed the gardens in black and white because she thought the absence of color would better capture the essence of the gardens, and that color would have been a distraction.
"I think what it does is that it gets you to look at the pictures from a different aspect," she said. "With black and white you're more likely to focus on structure."
Sills' husband, Lowry Pei, accompanied Sills on many of her trips to the South. Pei also wrote the introduction to his wife's book, including, "As the project went on, Vaughn came to realize that she was making a record of cultural tradition that is being worn away by time and assimilation."