Gardens to grow the spirit
A Chicago Botanic Garden worker arranges plants for the exhibit, “Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens.” | Photo courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden
African American Gardens’
Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe
Through Sept. 30
Admission is free; parking is $20 per car
(847) 835-8215 or www.chicagobotanic.org
A companion exhibition is also on display at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place, Chicago
Updated: August 3, 2012 10:32AM
Leona Stokes, Leona Stokes, how does your garden grow? With painted rocks and hollyhocks, and tires in which plants grow.
Stokes’ Mississippi garden is one of over 30 mystical and magical gardens featured in a compelling photography exhibition, “Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens,” which runs through Sept. 30 at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Joutras Gallery.
The exhibition is an outgrowth of award-winning photographer Vaughn Sills’ acclaimed 2010 book of the same name. The photographs are stunning studies in black and white. Cultural significance aside, this exhibition should resonate with anyone who considers their garden a work in progress, and certainly a work of art.
These gardens from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina are worlds apart from the more formal manicured lawns and impeccably designed and maintained flora and fauna usually preserved in coffee table books. At a casual glance, they are seemingly untamed and whimsically cluttered.
Annie Bell Sturghill’s garden in Georgia is chockablock with items such as cloth, eggs, jars, bottles, Styrofoam peanuts and bird figures. Alfred Lee Johnson’s Alabama garden features hanging plants affixed to a swingset and toilets utilized as planters. Or try on for size the shoe-bedecked garden of Mississippian L.V. Hull.
Sills, 65, became fascinated by these and other folk gardens while accompanying a friend who was researching African American architecture in Athens, Ga.
“I wasn’t interested so much in how the gardens looked, but how they felt,” she said. “I learned that there was a tradition and particular gardening aesthetic that enslaved blacks brought with them from West Africa and has been maintained for many years. I went looking for other gardens and as time went on, I learned more and more about the particulars about certain things in the yards and what they symbolized and meant to people.”
One of the most common, she said, is an empty bottle or vessel hung on the ends of branches, meant to capture evil spirits. “A circle is also very important,” Sills, said. “It represents continuity in nature and in life, but it also represents progress that occurs even in difficult times. This gives people faith to move forward.”
This can be seen in a photograph of Eula Mary Owens’ garden, which features a border of whitewashed tires.
The centerpiece of the Chicago Botanic Garden exhibit is a 10-foot- square living indoor garden edged by upcycled lumber. Featured is a variety of greenery, including tall plantings with “bottle blossoms” and prayer plants nestled in tires once used on the Botanic Garden tram.
In a review of this exhibition at an art gallery at Simmons College in Massachusetts, where Sills is an Associate Professor of Photography, a Boston Globe writer mused, “It’s a good thing she uses black and white, otherwise her pictures might be overpowering.”
“I love gardens, but I didn’t want the photographs to be about the prettiness,” she said. “When I talk about the beauty (of the gardens and yards) I’m talking about something other than prettiness. I wanted people to sense the deeper kind of structure that exists and I think that may come through better in black and white.”