Susie T. Evans sweeps the fine dirt in front of her wooden bungalow every morning. She likes the ground smooth and packed firm. When she rests she sits on a bench fashioned from scrap wood and a rusty bucket. She collects the junk that accumulates along the paved road running in front of her house; on either side of the front steps sit piles of hubcaps of varying quality and condition, and wayward bicycle rims and wheels.

Evans, who lives in rural Alabama, is one of the black homeowners that environmental design professor Richard Westmacott met while doing research about gardens and yards in the South. "When I moved here, I didn't have the money to buy the things I wanted," she told Westmacott. "I wanted big white posts on the side of my gate. I get out there and when a wheel [hubcap] run off I stick it beside the gate. I call them 'old slave-time junk.'"

As he traveled through the Georgia Piedmont, the low country of South Carolina, and Alabama's "black belt," Westmacott documented the outdoor spaces the region's residents had created for themselves. Through their recollections and his further research, the University of Georgia professor traced the roots of these gardens back to the plots of land cultivated on slave plantations and in African villages.

African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South, an exhibit at Fairchild Tropical Garden, reveals some of Westmacott's findings and highlights the creativity and resourcefulness of that backcountry. Unfortunately the show, organized by the Southern Arts Federation and based on Westmacott's book of the same name, is too modest for its subject matter.

The exhibition, installed in the auditorium next to the gift shop, deals with the roles of the garden (defined in the rural South as a plot where vegetables are grown) and the yard (the area for planting flowers, receiving guests, and doing chores). It consists of several separate displays devoted to different themes. A section called "Symbols of Graciousness and Welcome," for instance, consists of a casually constructed diorama featuring a wheelbarrow, potted flowers, wind chimes, and a watering can, as well as similar items depicted in photographs and in explanatory texts hung on freestanding panels. The photos, taken by Westmacott, show homeowners and their families in yards decorated with everything from welcome signs and wagon wheels to fountains, figurines of flamingos, and old sewing machines. "Self-Sufficiency," another section that's similarly laid out, is illustrated with photos of vegetable beds, laundry drying on clotheslines, homemade rabbit traps, and communal hog slaughtering.

The installations are charming -- the best is a re-creation of a front porch, complete with a rocking chair -- they capture the essence of the South and help to bring the subject to life. The exhibition aptly demonstrates the importance of the rural Southern yard and garden as a source of food, a site for family gatherings, and a creative outlet. From a historical standpoint, it also points out how these spaces provided both sustenance and joy to slave families whose owners allotted them their own plots, and that traditions such as yard sweeping originated in Africa, where they persist to this day.

But the photos, some of which are hardly bigger than snapshots and are pasted together on mats, go sadly unexploited. By focusing on the little things -- a woman doing wash, a man shelling beans, an ancient quilt hanging out to dry, a rag doll stuck in the crook of a tree -- as well as on more expansive shots of the landscape, Westmacott has created a vivid portrait of a disappearing American lifestyle. If only it were displayed as such.

The same can be said of the exhibition's archival photographs. These include evocative black-and-white pictures taken in 1939 and 1940 by Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, and others for the Farm Security Administration. Had they been enlarged and displayed properly, all these images would have made for a very powerful photo show. But seen here as mere illustrations for didactic texts, they really go to waste.

Of course, Fairchild has never been a venue for exhibitions of this kind, and it would be interesting to see more shows installed in the auditorium. This one, accomplished on a shoestring budget, is geared more toward education than aesthetic appreciation. But even at that, while "African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South" does provide interesting insights into subjects such as the symbolism of a pen of hogs (productiveness) and the African roots of the swept dirt yard, it's a miserly tribute to the vision of the modern-day gardeners who maintain those traditions.

Gardens are also the focus of a show at the FIU Art Museum. Paintings, works on paper, sculpture, and mixed media installations by 30 artists compose "American Art Today: The Garden," which surveys how nature is portrayed in contemporary art. Included are Roberto Juarez's baroque painted flowers, Peter Dayton's color Xerox collage of hyper-lifelike blossoms, Gregory Crewdson's photos of a postmodern Eden, and David Hockney's Southern California scenes. Tomorrow (January 31) museum director Dahlia Morgan, who curated the show, leads a gallery tour. The tour, plus lunch at the museum, costs $18. At all other times admission to "The Garden," which is up through February 15, is free. The museum is located on FIU's main campus at SW Eighth Street and 107th Avenue; call 348-2890 for more info.

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