Places for the Spirit by Vaughn Sills
One of the things I miss the most about the new big highways that zip me from the Piedmont to the coast of North Carolina is that I am no longer taken through the middle and edges of the hamlets and villages that truly exemplify our state instead of past shopping centers and malls. Part of the joy for me was seeing how my fellow Carolinians lived, and especially to reflect on the African-American folks who lived a life unlike my own and yet one, despite its difficulties and hardships, seemed to me much closer to the life my grandparents had lived—one more real in spirit somehow, certainly closer to the earth. I was continually fascinated by, to me, the beautiful yards we would pass—yards which to most viewers might have seemed nothing more than examples of poverty. Certainly not yards created with any kind of established aesthetic. Many times these yards edged by haphazard cottage garden flowers and quirky decorations would, surrounded by jumbled fences of varied make and construction, enfold a dirt yard. I suppose that is part of what made me feel so at home. I, too, grew up playing in a dirt yard and watched or helped sweep my own, my neighbors', or my grandmother's up the road. And we had quirky gardens too.
The 80 inspired and deeply sensitive black and white photos in Vaughn Sills' book surveys over twenty years of canvassing the south for African-American gardens. Her own essay, the essay of her husband Lowry Pei, and one by Hilton Als, provide a foundation for appreciating Sills' attraction to and understanding of an art form that not only reflects cultural and circumstantial realities but also roots deep in African and slave folklore and religion. Sills' preface relays her surprise and delight in her first discovery of these gardens, and Pei's long introduction creates a standard for explaining and celebrating this unlikely aesthetic.
Note the title. Places FOR spirits, not OF. The spirits inhabiting these spaces are evoked through symbolic gestures and particular things. The plants, the flowers, in a way, are the decoration. The place itself and its ornaments respond to deep reservoirs of feeling toward earth energies and soul forces . . . not the least the creative and healing forces of nature and human interaction with nature. Sills states, "As I look at my photographs now and try to define what compelled me, I see a sense of both order and mystery, with visual and soul-satisfying contrast between open space and dense arrangements of plant life. In many of the gardens I was drawn to the myriad objects placed to reflect light, to create structure, to delight and, it seemed, to entertain . . . These gardens hold a place for spirits: the gardeners provide the means to communicate with ancestors, fend off harm, and offer security to those who enter."
There is absolutely no reason the gardeners should have welcomed a young northern white woman, product of Rhode Island School of Design, into their gardens, hearts, and homes. But wise folk that they are I'm sure they could read her sensitivity. Her photographic and textual portraits convey a profound respect for the gardeners and their traditions. This book is pure visual poetry and tells many stories not only of folklore and tradition, but life in the poor African-American south without condescension. The photographs and Sills' sharing of the gardens and the stories of their creators, in such an extraordinary and beautiful way, testifies to a remarkable documentarian and artist, and a visionary capable of stepping outside the fences of ordinary aesthetics into a realm of magic and alternative making.