To See a Summer Sky Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie -- True Poems Flee -- Emily Dickinson
All created on Prince Edward Island, these photographs are a visual memoir that is about my grieving for my mother, as it also suggests something about a way of life that was hers and, in significant ways, my own.
I run down to the shore – if running is the right word, as I clumsily juggle my tripod and camera and concern myself with not tripping on a jutting root or turning my ankle in a divot in the bumpy ground -- and hope to get there in time to make a picture of that perfect cloud formation. But then those clouds move to the east and a ray of light appears, and a new scene, a new poem, appears… then flees almost as quickly as it appeared, maybe before I can make the picture. I wait… and keep photographing. Is there one even better moment still to come?
The fog settles into a valley, or hovers silently over a pond, creating mystery, evoking memories, and touching my heart as I feel again a certain sadness, a mourning, a familiar ache. I am reluctant to leave. Who can leave such beauty? And such mystery? But soon, the fog will dissipate, not unlike Dickinson’s summer day, and so I had best go on. My self-appointed work, after all, is to create pictures.
In some images, houses sit, perfectly placed, it feels to me, in the landscape, holding their own stories, holding memories of our mothers and our childhoods. They sit well in front of the horizon, which matters beyond measure. Whether as sharp as a drawn line or nearly invisible, the horizon demands my attention. But why? Is it because it implies both the finite and the infinite – for isn’t there something beyond the line, however indistinct? And where exactly is that horizon? And since we can never get there, how can we get to the beyond? Perhaps that is what these photographs are about – they help me get to what lies beyond.
Archival pigment prints:
21" x 14", limited edition of 10 prints
33" x 22", limited edition of 3 prints
As the Day Breaks from Night
Between the Light and Me
In Your Own Sweet Way
I Call Your Name
True Poems Flee
Rhapsody in Blue
Sound of Silence
Untitled (Scales Pond)
The Mist of Emyvale
On the Way to Kinkora
When Fog Lifts
A Room of Her Own
I Remember This
What Fog Reveals
Home, Sweet Home
Tell the Truth, but Tell it Slant
An Affair of Awe
Places for the Spirit
“Places for the Spirit, Traditional African American Gardens” is a series of photographs of both gardens andthe people who created them. My photographs are intended to honor and document a unique landscape aesthetic that is historically significant. Design elements within the gardens, as well as their spiritual meanings, have been traced to the cultural practices of African American slaves and farther back to their West African heritage.
I was first drawn to the gardens by their beauty, and quickly learned of their cultural and aesthetic significance. Photographing, reading, and talking with the gardeners, I learned a great deal about the traditions these yards carry — they are designed to welcome visitors, to elicit respect, and promise safety; within the yards are material objects with symbolic meanings – such as bottles, pipes, the color white, or circular objects – that are placed there to capture evil spirits, to provide a way for ancestors to communicate with the living, to invoke the deity, to reassure the visitor that despite hardship, progress will occur.
In these yards we see the gardeners’ reverence for the cycles of life and nature, for the presence of the spiritual, and for the value of community.
A book of over 80 photographs was published in 2010 by Trinity University Press.
“ 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
“Starting in 1987, Vaughn Sills would spend nearly two decades in the South photographing “Places for the Spirit, Traditional African American Gardens.” Sills’s 20 black-and-white photographs are as much anthropological or sociological as horticultural, except that makes them sound clinical and distanced. Instead, they are marvels of emotional gravity. Even when we don’t see the gardens’ owners, and we often do, the viewer very much feels a human presence. It’s telling that each title includes the owner’s name. Sense of place and sense of person join. And that’s leaving out what marvels these little plots of land are, equally fecund in imaginativeness of design (note the whitewashed tires in “Eula Mary Owen’s Yard, Jackson, Mississippi”) and lushness of growth. These photos would be overwhelming in color or shot with compositional busy-ness. In keeping things so (seemingly) simple, Sills honors her subject’s wondrous complexity.”
— Mark Feeney, Boston Globe
Archival Pigment Prints:
19.5" x 16" , limited edition of 5 prints
17" x 14" limited edition of 5 prints
Pearl Fryar's Garden, Bishopville, South Carolina
Pearl Fryar, Bishopville, South Carolina
Inez Faust, Backyard, Ogelthorpe County, Georgia
Inez Faust, Ogelthorpe County, Georgia
Alexander Bell's Garden, Greenville, North Carolina
Emma Moore's Yard, near Marion, Alabama
Bea Robinson, Athens, Georgia
Anniebelle Sturghill's Garden, Athens, Georgia
Anniebelle Sturghill, Athens, Georgia
Louise Daniel's House and Garden, Greenville, North Carolina
Alfred Lee Johnson's Backyard, Eutaw, Alabama
David Washington's Garden, New Orleans, Louisiana
Ella Steward's Yard, Ogelthorpe County, Georgia
Jame Cox, Ogelthorpe County, Georgia
Jame Cox's Garden, Ogelthorpe County, Georgia
Over a period of twenty years, I made portraits and collected the stories of four generations of one family, the Tooles of northeastern Georgia. Theirs is a story of hardship, perseverance, and love. Lois and Joel, who both grew up in families who had worked as tenant farmers, were in their forties and had had nine children, with the oldest 25 and the youngest seven when I met them. Tina, the youngest daughter was nine when I began photographing them in 1979; and in the years I continued to photograph and record the family history, she grew up, married, had a child, divorced, and remarried; Tina also became her mother Lois’s primary caretaker during the last years of Lois's life. In my book of the Tooles, One Family, Tina becomes the central figure, while her mother draws nearly equal attention. But equally important are Tina’s brothers and sisters, whose individual stories and portraits reveal their experiences, and show the depth of love and care they hold for each other, their parents, and their children -- with a devotion that is profound.
One Family, Georgia University Press, was published in 2001.
Silver prints, 20" x 16", editions limited to ten prints
Lois with two granddaughters, 1979
Joe, Lois and Jerry, 1988
Tina, Tasha, and Lynn, 1990
Lois, Tina, and Tasha, 1990
Frank and Jerry, 1990
Mary and Justin, 1990
Tina and Lois, 1993
Angela with Chellsey, 1995
Angela, with her children, Chellsey and Christin, and Lynn's children, Nichole, Courteney and Ashlynn, 1996
Suszan, Melodie, Mickey, and Michael, 1996
Lois, Joe and Kerry's Home, 1990
Grown in a garden or a greenhouse, the flowers I photograph have been cultivated, nurtured, cut, brought inside, and placed in vases -- they are representations of domesticity and the human urge to create beauty. Behind them are my photographs of the natural world, whether land or sea, wild or cultivated; in this juxtaposition, the domestic becomes a part of the natural world – distinct but not different. In the making of these images, I both acknowledge and attempt to deny that these signs of life are forever changing, passing away from us. My goal is to create in each image a layered manifestation of beauty, memory, and the ephemeral.
Archival pigment prints:
21" x 14", limited edition of 10 prints
32" x 21", limited edition of 5 prints
Tulips, Northumberland Strait
Delphinium, Wright's Pond
Stargazer Lily (white and pink), Northumberland Strait
Stargazer Lilies, North Wiltshire
Sunset Rose, Emyvale
Double Bloom Tulips, Northumberland Strait
Ranunculus, Northumberland Strait
Peonies, Nothumberland Strait
I have chosen objects from nature one by one, found them, dug them, preserved them – a squirrel’s skeleton, poplar saplings that sprout from one long root, broken egg shells lying on the forest floor. I have taken them, or been given them, from the land on Prince Edward Island where my grandparents visited each summer, where I now have a cottage. I chose these things because of their extraordinary beauty – and because they seem to hold the mystery of life and death.
My family’s 1932 Oxford English Dictionary seduces me with its promise to teach, to offer knowledge, even to dispel mystery. But entrancing as it is, leading me from one word to the next, this well-used book lets me down. Words are incomplete; they fall short of conveying the miraculous presence of a squirrel’s skeleton, the complexity of a bird’s nest, the delicacy of a moth. Six letters – l, u, p, i n, e – represent the tall stemmed purple, pink, yellow and white flowered perennials whose palmated leaves turn a dusty grayish green then brown, giving way to hairy seed pods that lyrically soften the late afternoon sun by the middle of August. The word ‘lupine’ doesn’t convey what I see and love, but neither does my long string of words. A word cannot even describe the beauty of a book.
Nevertheless I need the words: they matter: they name what I see, they describe a color, a shape, an action, an attribute. Thus in my photographs I wish to portray the lure and beauty of language itself.
I have brought together objects from nature that exist outside my cottage with my dictionary, the world of our intellect. And with these I offer the artifice – the wire and pushpins and tape and thread, though sometimes barely visible – of my effort to comprehend and represent, as well as to suggest the fragility of such efforts. The construction itself has become interesting to me; it is the grammar with which I work. And yet each tableau, like each object, is delicate and cannot last. The plants will die without soil, the skeletons will fall apart, the threads will let go. The pages of the dictionary will continue to yellow; the binding, continue to loosen. Like my dreams, my beloved signs of life will eventually disappear.
The photographs are made from 4x5 Polaroid negatives and are archival Iris prints. They are available for exhibition or purchase.
25” x 20” limited editions of 10 prints, Archival Iris Prints
32” x 25” limited editions of 5 prints, Archival Iris Prints
Indan Pipe, Beyond Words
Crabs, Beyond Words
Squirrel, Beyond Words
Seeds of Thistle, Beyond Words
Landscape, Beyond Words
Poppy Seeds, Beyond Words
Birds, Beyond Words
Shell, Beyond Words
Nest, Beyond Words
Mushroom, Beyond Words
Past and Present
In these images, I am exploring the relationship between past and present in my life; using both old and new photographs and writing from diaries, letters, essays, or even scraps of paper, I am making photographs about the integration of memory and experience, of what was and what is.
Some of the pieces are straight prints without manipulation — perhaps feeling more “present” — although they sometimes show the aberrations of film. While in others, selective toning is used in a way to suggest the complexity of, even confusion within, experience. Altogether, this work is about the ambiguity between one’s expectations and the realities of one’s life, the mingling of past and present, the beautiful and the ordinary. The past is not different in power or in temporal meaning than the present.
The prints are from a larger series of about 20 images; they are selectively toned silver prints, 16” x 20”, 1983-1986.