Photographs of gardens filled with seemingly random yet carefully placed objects were presented in the Women’s Studies Research Center on Thursday. In the lecture titled “Places for the Spirit, Traditional African American Gardens,” photographer Vaughn Sills presented images from her new photography book of the same name that showcase the distinct aesthetic of Southern African-American gardens. The presentation was held in conjunction with the exhibit currently on display in the Women’s Studies Research center, “Tea of Oblivion,” which also has themes of nature.   

Sills describes herself as “a fine art and documentary photographer, particularly interested in the relationship between the natural world, culture and the inner life, as well as the experience of the individual in family and their cultural environment,” according to her website. 

Sills has been awarded the prestigious Gold Award for Best Photography by the Garden Writers Association at the Media Awards and is currently an associate professor Emerita of Photography at Simmons College. 

At the start of her presentation, Sills discussed that when she started her career as a photographer, she was more interested in individuals — as can be seen in her first photography book, titled “One Family,” which focuses on who we are because of our families. Her focus shifted as she “noticed that landscape was really a part of the culture and, in some ways, influenced by culture and vice-versa.” The continuity between her different projects existed in how she moved more towards looking at the landscape in the natural world and its intersection with human life and culture.

In 2010, Sill published “Places for the Spirit, Traditional African American Gardens,” which includes over eighty photographs from the Deep South of African-American gardens, as well as some of the people behind them. In Sills’ talk, she presented a selection of these images and elaborated on the process behind capturing the photographs as well as their significance. 

Sills explained that there is a distinctive, identifiable aesthetic to these gardens and that the design elements and material objects, have been traced back to being used by slaves in the South and further, from West Africa. 

A description of the event by the WSRC described these gardens as representing “a distinctive aesthetic brought to America by African slaves and exhibit a deeply embedded tradition that has survived geographic and social transition, slavery, poverty, and time.” 

Most of the photos, all in black and white, were taken by Sills on trips to the South and display vivid scenes of gardens — lawns of standard houses that are elaborately decorated with an intricate, though seemingly messy, placement of plants, flowers and standard objects. 

Sills commented, “all of the objects have meaning … I think the key to understanding this is that there is something beyond what we immediately see.”

 In one photo, objects including pots, pails, plastic bottles, pieces of pipe and wood and chains are stacked in three distinct statue-like piles. The objects are broken, dirty and jut out in all angles, and noticeably several of them, such as the pails and even a plastic lawn chair, have been placed upside-down. Although at face value these piles appear to have been randomly thrown together, it is clear that great care was taken in their creation and that there is an underlying great significance. Sills commented that it is common to have upside down vessels, often bottles, placed throughout the yard —  often on the end of branches — because they capture people’s spirits and are thus a form of protection. 

Not all of the photos were of the lawns, however; several were of the owners and creators. These pictures tended to be even more intimate than those of the lawns, as the subjects looked directly into the lens while surrounded by their work. Sills noted that to get these more personal photos, often she would wait to ask to take photos of the creators until after taking photos of the gardens. The photos of the creators combined with those of the gardens present a comprehensive picture of the aesthetic significance of the Southern African-American gardens, as well as the personal significance they have to those who create them.