Topiary as an art dates back to ancient Roman days. Over the centuries it has been used as symmetrical or whimsical ornament in the garden, as gardeners snipped and clipped various sorts of plants from large evergreens to small herbs into geometric or animal shapes.
Pearl Fryar of Bishopville, South Carolina, creates his sculptural topiary by clipping with a power hedge clippers. For the most part his designs do not resemble those classic designs of old. He feels there is no point in repeating what has been done before. He is directed by his own passion and his own vision.
Anyone meeting Pearl Fryar forty years ago would never have imagined that this son of a sharecropper and employee of National Can (now Rexam) would become a nationally known artist working in topiary, chronicled in the New York Times and on TV, a college teacher, or that his three and a half acre garden would attract thousands of visitors to his small town every year.
When Fryar began house hunting in Bishopville in 1976 the owner of a house in a white neighborhood complained to the realtor that “blacks never kept their yards up.” Knowing of this comment Fryar did not buy a house in that neighborhood, but he did promise himself that he would make his yard something special. His goal was to win the Yard of the Month award sponsored by the local garden club. It took him five years, but he accomplished his goal and kept on clipping. He said “There is always going to be obstacles. The thing you do is don’t let those obstacles determine where you go.”
It is hard to know why he thought clipping throw-away plants he got from a local garden center into odd shapes was the way to get positive attention for his garden, but visitors who now wander among his topiaries marvel at the elegantly abstract forms that some describe as a fairyland while others feel they have fallen into Alice’s Wonderland. Since he worked at the can factory all day, much of this work was done at night under a spotlight. When he began even his wife wondered if he had taken leave of his senses, but since those early days he has inspired his neighbors to create their own topiaries and the town has embraced him as their own unique tourist attraction.
Twenty years ago Jean Grosser, a professor at nearby Coker College, was perhaps the first artist to recognize Fryar’s work as something more than decorative. She recognized the topiaries as art, and Fryar as a sculptor. She brings her basic design class to the garden every year to sketch, to study the interplay of curves and straight lines, of positive and negative space. She has also brought him to the college as adjunct faculty, team teaching the introductory design class and an advanced sculpture class.
The students appreciate that he doesn’t think SAT scores or even the required sketchbook for art class mean everything in a student evaluation. He stresses that it is the students’ passion and determination that matter.
Professor Grosser wrote to me “Pearl is a natural teacher. I have always felt that he sees students the way he sees his plants. They are formed over years (not weeks or months), and they are not defined by bumps along the way. Just as Pearl is able to see the potential of throw away plants, he also sees great promise in students who are struggling to find out who they are. Students who meet Pearl are amazed by his passion and his energy (he is over 70 years old). They are inspired by his ability to have an idea and see it blossom. It gives them hope that they might be successful in the challenges that face them. I have always felt that, though I bring students to Pearl’s garden to learn about art and shapes, he is a teacher of life lessons.”
In 1998 the State Museum in Columbia mounted an exhibition titled “Still Worth Keeping: Communities, Preservation and Self-Taught Artists. Curators Tom Stanley and Polly Laffitte commissioned Fryar to install beds of topiary at the entrance of the museum, but Fryar added a large sculpted tree from his garden to the museum grounds. Laffitte said this was nothing they expected, to have a sculptured plant as part of the permanent collection. “It has worked out very well,” she said
Short of having Fryar as a neighbor most of us will not have 20 foot topiary sculptures in our gardens. However, Fryar has made his garden’s real goal very clear. Cut into his lawn and marked with red begonias are the words PEACE LOVE & GOODWILL. These are the principles he lives by and principles we can all hold to in our own gardens and lives. Peace, Love and Goodwill is also the title of an event at Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount in Lenox, where local gardeners and artists will have the happy opportunity to meet Pearl Fryar when he demonstrates his technique on July 17. There will be two demonstrations, one at 11 a.m. and one at 1:30 p.m. Continuous showings of the inspiring 78 minute documentary “A Man Named Pearl” will be held in The Stable from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets $20 (includes admission to The Mount) are available online at EdithWharton.org or by phone at 800-838-3006. Proceeds will benefit the Lift Ev’ry Voice Festival. A reception featuring a topiary and fine wine auction will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets for the reception are $55.
Between the Rows June 25, 2011