Part folk artist, though with a surrealistic bent, and part Edward Scissorhands, though without the angst, topiary creator extraordinaire Pearl Fryar is the humblest celebrity you'll ever meet, quietly plying his craft at his modest home in the unlikely location of Bishopville, South Carolina. The end result is anything but low-key. Fryar's sculpted trees populate a living wonderland that has been visited by everyone from renowned British garden expert Rosemary Verey to groups of local school children.
The fame of this unique 3-plus-acre garden with its 400-some odd plants and its self-taught plant shaper has spread so far that busloads of tourists arrive regularly for a firsthand look, and its owner generously welcomes the attention. Now Fryar is the subject of a documentary film entitled A Man Named Pearl, directed by Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson, which premiered at the 2006 Heartland Film Festival (where it received a Crystal Heart Award) and with a limited theater release that began in July 2008. The video/DVD release is expected to be later this year. (For more information, see amannamedpearl.com.)
It's a rare thing for horticulture and documentary filmmaking to converge, but then, Fryar is a rare individual. With no formal training, his methods of pruning and making plants thrive are a marvel to experts in the field. An African-American son of sharecroppers living in the rural South during a turbulent time for racial issues, his art crosses cultural boundaries and the words "Peace, Love and Good Will" are formed out of plants as a centerpiece in his garden. His story is one that combines high-minded ideas like inspiration and perseverance, but it's also earth-bound, filled with real people, small triumphs and some harsh realities.
When Fryar first moved to Bishopville in 1976, he was discouraged from buying a house in a white neighborhood because neighbors there were of the opinion that "black people don't keep up their yards." Settling into a black neighborhood, Fryar couldn't quite put aside the bigotry he had experienced and set his sites on being the first African-American in the town to win the Yard of the Month award. After watching a short video on topiary at a local nursery, Fryar's course was set. Not only was the award his, today his work is considered museum quality and is coveted by collectors.
Now 66, Fryar has spent countless hours on his creations, sometimes giving new life to specimens he rescues from the trash heap at the nursery. After a full day of working at a soda-can factory, a job he has since retired from, Fryar would often come home, flip on the spotlights, and work late into the night on his trees and shrubs — an MO many gardeners can relate to.
I had the good fortune to meet Fryar years ago when he came to Nashville to do a topiary workshop at a botanical garden. I found him mesmerizing, an old soul (I also remember thinking what a good subject for sculpture he himself would make, his face and hands rich with the character artists search for). When asked what possessed him to pursue his art with such fervor and how he had achieved such acclaim, his response was that it never occurred to him that he couldn't succeed. Shaping trees was a natural passion. Fryar's story is one of hard work and joy, and the film is also about humanity, giving a window onto life in this small Southern town with its one-of-a-kind resident. Pearl is a perfect name.