Vaughn Sills, Places for the Spirit:
Traditional African American Gardens in the South
Bea Robinson, Athens, Georgia by Vaughn Sills
One early September afternoon in 1988, Vaughn Sills found herself on the porch of Bea Robinson’s house in Athens, Georgia. While her friend and Bea chatted about their lives, she looked around and became entranced by Bea’s garden. “Something came over me – or through me – as I stood in the garden, looking, feeling, sensing the energy or magic or spirit, call it what you will, that surrounded me.” On that warm, soft, sunny day, Sills took the first of what became a series of photographs, from throughout the South, that she worked on for nearly twenty years.
Sills’ series, Places of the Spirit, documents a tradition that is a way of using the land that is both historically significant and aesthetically resonant. Scholars have studied African American gardens and traced many of their traits to Africa, pointing out similar uses of the land and finding that slaves brought with them not only plant seeds, but agricultural expertise, some of it still in evidence today.
These gardens speak a certain language – a language, Sills is convinced, that is about the earth, about beauty, and about spirit.” Some of the vocabulary of this language is about belief and spiritual knowledge – the empty bottles, the pipes sticking upright out of the ground, dolls – and have specific meanings that relate to the spirits of ancestors or magical powers and that go back centuries and across an ocean; some of the vocabulary is functional, practical, born of necessity – the vegetable gardens, the chicken coops; and some is quite simply of beauty – the impatiens and petunias and pinks, the rose bushes, prickly pears, and canna lilies. The way the vocabulary is put together is based on tradition, custom, function, and each gardener’s sense of what looks pleasing – in a special and recognizable style. This style becomes the structure of the language; this structure is aesthetic; and this aesthetic is beauty.
The Book: Places for the Spirit
Places for the Spirit
Trinity University Press
San Antonio TX
“Looking at these black and white images sometimes feels like dropping paper flowers in a glass of water and watching them expand. Vaughn Sills’s images make the mind expand like a rose, fragrant with vision…. [Her] humility in the face of the order she finds in these various gardens is touching – and enlightening.” –Hilton Als
“Sills, who took these photographs in Georgia, the two Carolinas, Louisiana, [Mississippi], and Alabama, includes the location in each title. How could she not, these images are so idiosyncratically — so wondrously — specific. That said, they also convey a sense of being beyond place — and outside of time. Humanity, the Bible says, started in a garden. Looking at these photographs, one can see how it continues in gardens, too.” –Mark Feeney, The Boston Globe
Two photographs from this body of work are in the gorgeous new book, The Photographer in the Garden, published jointly by Aperture and the George Eastman House
Bio: Vaughn Sills’ work has been has been exhibited widely, in museums and galleries; the galleries of botanic gardens; and are in the collections of the DeCordova Museum, Harvard Art Museum, the Eaton Vance Collection, among others. Sills has received several significant awards — twice she received the Artist’s Fellowship in Photography by the Massachusetts Cultural Council; other grants and awards have come from the Artadia Dialogue for Art and Culture, the Polaroid Foundation, and The New England Foundation for the Arts.
Her photographs and books, Places for the Spirit, Traditional African American Gardens (2010) and One Family (2001) earned awards from the Garden Writers Association and the Magazine Association for the Southeast.
Vaughn is a Visiting Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center and Associate Professor Emerita of Photography at Simmons College. She lives and works in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Sarah Sterling, Cultivated Chaos
Goldfinch and Redbud by Sarah Sterling
In Cultivated Chaos, Sarah Sterling documents the ongoing evolution of her Hudson NY garden—its metamorphoses through the seasons, along with its avian and insect visitors. As she seeks out the often unseen mysteries of the garden—ephemeral moments of exuberance and reflection, she creates unusual compositions and color combinations that suit her painterly vision. Sterling has learned over the years that her photographs, no matter how carefully planned, must yield to the plants which have their own agenda, creating the cheerful chaos that becomes the foreground, or background, of each composition.
Bio: Sarah Sterling of Hudson NY is an award winning photographer who has exhibited her work widely in the Hudson Valley region. Venues include Spencertown Academy galleries, John Davis Gallery, Hudson Area Library, Earle Mitchell Gallery, Davis Orton Gallery, Hudson Opera House, Berkshire Museum and Columbia Green Community College. Among her projects are “The Meadow”, an ongoing photo essay, Flower/Garden Abstract Series, and, individually, Birds, Dragonflies, and Insects.
The garden is growth and change and that means loss as well as constant new treasures to make up for a few disasters.
— May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude, 1973
Weeding by Laurie Blakeslee
For more than four decades, my mother-in-law Fritz has been gardening the same plot of land (approximately an 1/8 acre) behind her home in Boise, Idaho. Her children say they can hardly believe she maintained such a huge garden when she worked full time. Despite their protests to scale back the ambitious planting, each year the garden seems to expand. In the tremendous heat of late summer, even Fritz will admit she is overwhelmed by the work. Fortunately, my partner Stephanie shares her mother’s love of gardening and works alongside her.
For Fritz, this vegetable garden not only provides food for her family (and her lucky neighbors), it also allows a space for meditation through the ritual of daily maintenance. It is clear that, as Fritz, now in her mid 80s, grows older, this garden provides a way to maintain her vitality. With the series “40-Year Garden” I am photographing a garden in all its seasons of transformation and the beauty of Fritz with her resilience and determination.
Bio Laurie Blakeslee has worked in photo-based media for over 20 years. She has exhibited nationally and internationally. Her work is held in many collections including: Boise Art Museum, Center for Creative Photography UA Tucson AZ, Colorado University, Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Laurie is currently an Associate Professor of Art at BSU, where she teaches photography and coordinates the undergraduate Art Foundations program. She received a BFA from Boise State University with an emphasis in painting and an MFA in photography from the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Lisa Redburn, Water Tapestries
Blackberry Lily Ballet by Lisa Redburn
Lisa Redburn is drawn to water where the boundaries between real and reflected are fluid. Water Tapestries began as she wandered in nature, observing swamps and streams. She focused on the relationships among reflected light, decaying plant material, surface texture, and the mysteries hiding below. She saw these images as “water tapestries.”
Over time the series evolved into more intentional work, in her own garden. She made a ritual of gathering a handful of buds, petals, leaves, and seedpods, then scattering them over a basin of water. She watched them bob and sink, gently floating into and away from each other. The process of creating these images in her garden wove together two strands of her creative life: gardener and photographer. “The botanica mingling in the water and the trees reflected there were old friends, seen in new ways.” Through this series, Redburn explores the tension between fluid and fixed, visible and invisible, control and serendipity, what is passing and what is to come. She has since moved, but ephemera from the garden she created live on in her photography.
Bio: Lisa Redburn is a fine-art photographer whose work explores the fluid boundaries between the real, reflected, and remembered. She finds layered stories in the puddles of Paris, ponds and bogs, botanica, and the patina of time.
Lisa’s work has appeared in numerous juried shows, nationally, including Monmouth Museum, Monmouth NJ and the Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester MA. She has received international recognition including: finalist in both the Pollux Awards and in the Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women Photographers; Juror’s Award of Merit in the Grand Prix de la Decouverte 2013 International Fine Art Competition; Best of Show in Reflections 2014 at the Photography Center of Cape Cod, and 3rd place in Viewpoints 2016 at Aljira Gallery, Newark NJ. Her images have appeared in Photo Review, Lens Work’s “Seeing in Sixes,” YourDailyPhotograph.com and donttakepictures.com.
Lisa has work in the Sloan Kettering Ambulatory Care Center in Lincroft, NJ, and in private collections. She recently moved to Plymouth, MA from Montclair, NJ.