In 1976, Pearl Fryar, an African-American, moved to Bishopville, South Carolina to take a job with a factory that made soda cans. This was a step up from the sharecropping livelihood his father pursued in North Carolina. In keeping with his new, better-paying job, Fryar (a man-named after his uncle), tried to buy a house in a nice neighborhood that turned out to be all-white. After his real estate agent discovered that he was not welcome because “Black people don’t keep up their yards”, Pearl decided to buy a house in a Black neighborhood.
Still stung by the bigotry of the white homeowners, he decided to show them up by becoming the first African-American to win Bishopville’s “Yard of the Month Award”. After watching a 15-minute video on the art of topiary at a local plant nursery, Pearl decided that he could do that himself. Not long after he sculpted his initial garden topiary on his front lawn, he received the coveted award. It didn’t stop there. For the rest of his life, until the present day, he has become one of America’s most highly regarded artists in the field without any formal training in topiary or horticulture.
Not only are his sculpted trees and bushes considered museum quality, he has amazed horticulturists with his ability to make just about anything grow, including Douglas Firs that are supposedly limited to cold, Northern regions. He is also an astounding miracle-worker with plants and trees that were thrown into the garbage at the local nursery, restoring their vitality through his own organic gardening methods. The 3 ½ acres around his house, which have become a nationally-recognized park, are a home to birds and butterflies that would ordinarily shun chemically treated greenery.
His life and work are celebrated in an inspiring documentary titled “A Man Named Pearl” that opens in NYC on July 18 at the Angelika Film Center and in L.A. on July 25 at the Music Hall, One Colorado, Town Center and other theaters.
Watching this movie, directed by Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson, will drive home the point that racism not only victimizes Black people but society as a whole when it condemns millions of people to a marginal existence as peon labor. Through his own fierce energy, pride and artistic inspiration, Pearl carved out a place for himself in America’s artistic pantheon. He reaches ordinary people, who visit his gardens by the thousands each year, as well as elite critics and curators who regard him as one of the country’s best self-taught artists. He has exhibited at the South Carolina State Museum as well as at Spoleto, Italy.
How many potential artists are out there who have Pearl’s talents but not his almost superhuman determination to create such ambitious works? How many scientists or doctors are we lacking because of a racist system that condemns people of color to second-class citizenship? After a 12 hour shift at the can factory, he would come home to work on his garden under spotlights. I spent 3 hours as a spot welder one morning in Kansas City factory in 1978 and that left me practically unconscious.
This March 10, 2005 article on Pearl Fryar is worth reading in its entirety to get an idea of the background of this unique human being.
Towering Ambition Gets Loose in the Yard
By WILLIAM L. HAMILTON
IT’S not hard to find Pearl Fryar’s house. You drive down a road on the outskirts of Bishopville, S.C., with brick suburban houses on either side. Mr. Fryar’s house, where he lives with his wife, Metra, and son, Patrick, is the one on the left sitting at the center of the intergalatic chess set of carved bushes, 5, 15 and 30 feet tall. The house number, 145, is carved bushes too, set at the edge of the front lawn.
”I’ve done things that I look at, and it’s like, oh, I tell you, man, this thing come from somewhere else,” Mr. Fryar said two weeks ago at his dining room table with Mrs. Fryar.
Mr. Fryar, 65, is a retired maintenance engineer and a self-taught topiary artist. He works with a gas-powered hedge trimmer that has double moving blades. He began the three acres of abstract yews, hollies, firs, oaks and pines that is the Fryars’ yard roughly 25 years ago in an act of frustration.
”I realized I was not going to accomplish what I really wanted to do in my job,” Mr. Fryar said of his work for the Rexam Beverage Can Americas company in the late 1970′s. ”I wanted to be a plant manager. The reason I didn’t think it was going to happen was because of the situation that the South was in at that time. It had not changed that much.”
Asked if he felt he was not considered for the position because he was black, Mr. Fryar hesitated. Mrs. Fryar, also 65, answered for him.
”Yes,” she said.
Greg Brooke, a spokesman for Rexam, said yesterday that decisions about promotion were based on performance only.
”Our people are given equal opportunity to develop,” Mr. Brooke said.
On a drive to Coker College in Hartsville where Mr. Fryar is working with the students in the art department to create small sculpture gardens with topiary, Mr. Fryar said that as a child living in Clinton, N.C., in the 1940′s he had witnessed lynchings. His parents, sharecroppers, would routinely instruct him how to stay out of trouble by being inconspicuous.
Taught to be invisible growing up, Mr. Fryar decided one day in his adult life, at home in Bishopville, to be as visible as possible. He walked into his front yard and cut up a holly bush.
”I thought he had lost it,” Mrs. Fryar said at the dining table.
”According to the book I would have thrown it out, but I didn’t know anything about the book,” Mr. Fryar said of the bush. ”I didn’t even know what topiary was.”
Two years later, content with how the experiment was developing, he cut up everything else in the yard. He also started to train his plants using pantyhose, coat hangers and PVC pipe to bind and direct them.
Believing his ambition blocked in one direction at his job, Mr. Fryar encouraged his personal pursuits in a different, unlikely direction, which assumed a wondrous shape, a decision that also describes the basic technique for creating topiary. After a 12-hour shift at the factory, Mr. Fryar, who retired three years ago, would work through the night and into the morning in his yard, under spotlights.
”You tell me I couldn’t do one thing, I’m going to prove to you I can do another thing,” he said, estimating that a third of the topiaries were created from weakly or misshapen shrubs that the local nursery put out for discard. ”Love, Peace & Goodwill” were dug into the lawn in large, neat block letters as a closing statement to the garden, which Mr. Fryar said he has finished.
Now internationally known in the garden world as well as in the art world, Mr. Fryar said he starts with an idea in his mind’s eye and begins to grow it, realizing most of his pieces, which are all abstract, in five to seven years. He doesn’t put designs on paper. His favorite artist is Picasso. There are 150 topiaries on the Fryars’ lot, comprising 400 plants and including several years of Christmas trees arranged in a kind of living timeline to one side of the house.
Asked how he determines when a topiary is finished, Mr. Fryar replied, ”When I can’t get to the top of it.”
Mr. Fryar’s first ambition, and first recognition, as a gardener was a local ”Yard of the Month” award in the early 1980′s. He has exhibited work at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, as part of a show on self-taught artists, and at Spoleto, the annual art festival in Charleston, as part of a special commission. Rosemary Verey, the queen of English gardeners, visited Mr. Fryar at home twice, but she died in 2001 before he could accept her invitation to walk the royal grounds with Prince Charles.
Tour buses and the odd wandering group are now a part of the Fryars’ routine at home. At the suggestion of a friend they have put up a donation box by the driveway and printed brochures. Mr. Fryar said that on one occasion someone left $5,000 in the box.
”You don’t know how many people come out here to see how bad it is,” he said of his critics. Neighbors, who Mrs. Fryar said were not particularly pleased by the topiary garden when it began to appear, have now begun to emulate it. Stray forms have cropped up in yards down the road, as though the Fryars’ bushes were escaping.
Mr. and Mrs. Fryar met in the seventh grade in Clinton.
”She was a grade ahead of me,” Mr. Fryar said, clarifying. ”So that mean that I was really uptown, because I’m able to handle a lady that’s probably a little smarter than I am.”
Mrs. Fryar burst into mad giggles.
”I kind of felt that there was something special there,” she said. After 10 years of dating, Mr. Fryar proposed.
”I had given him a week, without his knowledge,” Mrs. Fryar recalled. ”I was fixing to break it off. I figure he’s never going to ask me to marry him, so we’ll just forget this.” Three days short of her deadline, he asked.
”That really messed up my plans,” Mrs. Fryar said.
The Fryars lived in Elmhurst, Queens, and Atlanta before moving to South Carolina in 1976 to be closer to family. Their only child, Patrick, now 36, a computer operator at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, is not interested in the topiary garden, they said, which leaves its future in some question. Mr. Fryar has donated or sold a handful of pieces, for prices as high as $35,000, to museums and collectors, though he said that he has also refused offers on topiaries that are focal to the vision of his garden.
Members of the Garden Conservancy, a national preservation group, have visited Bishopville. William Noble, director of preservation projects, said the conservancy is intrigued by Mr. Fryar and his creation and is looking at the situation and the feasibility of being of help.
Mr. Fryar said he would like to see the plot preserved as a work of art but was philosophic about the likelihood that it might not be. He compared it to ”The Gates,” the installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude being dismantled in Central Park after several weeks on view. The Fryars saw it on a trip to New York in February.
”You accept the fact: it’s not put there to be forever,” Mr. Fryar said, as though speaking of his own place on earth.
Asked how he came to called Pearl, he added: ”Oh that’s easy. I was named after my uncle.”
Pearl Fryar’s Garden website (with slideshow): http://www.fryarstopiaries.com/