Doing it Right: Pearl Fryar’s Vision

Fryar, arches
Source: the WebGallery at Fryar's website, pearlfryar.com

There’s a new garden on my must-see list: the gardens of Pearl Fryar, in Bishopville, South Carolina, where he creates such unlikely and beautiful topiaries as those above—and below.

I should mention that I’d never heard of Pearl Fryar until the Garden Monkey linked to GardenHistoryGirl’s post about him a month back. And she’s not the only garden blogger to write about him, either; Tales of the Microbial Laboratory included a post over a year ago, around when the documentary, A Man Named Pearl came out. (You can see the trailer here.)

Fryar at work
Fryar at work. Source: pearlfryar.com

Pam of the Lab not only saw the movie’s premier, she got to meet the man himself. She says he’s “about as contagious a person as I have met in my life,” a phrase that makes me smile every time I read it (I love that blog), and she reports that he was right there in the garden and as eager to talk with her as his website had said he would be. No false advertising there.

When Fryar, who is black, moved into his mostly white neighborhood in Bishopville, some people worried that he wouldn't keep up his yard. This happened not in the 1950s, nor even the 60s, but the not so distant 80s. He responded by setting out to win the local Yard of the Month award. But of course.

Pearl-overview
Source: Human Flower Project

Even better, though, is how he went about it. He didn’t just set out for a neat, pretty, conventional look—weed-free, carefully edged lawn, neatly trimmed hedges, carefully set out flower-beds—no, he struck out in a totally unique direction, even for him: he started carving up his shrubs into remarkable and striking topiary sculptures. (With no training save a 15 minute video, according to one source.) Apparently people were variously horrified and befuddled, until they gradually caught on that something rather remarkable was going on in Mr. Fryar’s yard. Eventually, they adopted him wholesale, as this photo of the town’s main street makes clear:

Bishopville
Source: Tales from the Microbial Laboratory, 27 May 2007.

And he did win the Yard of the Month award, three times. An article about him on the South Carolina Information Highway (SCIway.net) site–their tourism site, I gather–aptly called garnering these awards "a feat," seeing as how his house isn't even inside the city limits.

This is such a marvelously creative response to the “you can’t join our club” attitude that he met. He could have edged his lawn within an inch of its life, or let it go to demonstrate that he just didn’t care about the neighbor’s opinions anyway. Instead, he did this:

Arches
Source: Fryar's WebGallery

And this:

Sunset silhouettes. 
Source: ibid

Yews, privets, and arborvitae are plants frequently used for topiaries, and these appear in Fryar’s garden, but he saw did not restrict himself to these, nor to mere shrubs, nor even to evergreens. He has worked with Common or American Boxwood (Buxus americana), with various shrubby junipers (Juniperus conferta, J. davurica ‘Parsoni’, J. horizontalis and/or Juniperus sabina ‘Tamariscifolia’), with pollarded silver maple (Acer saccharinum), with Baby’s-breath Spiraea (Spiraea thunbergii), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), with Norway Spruce (Picea abies), and with over a dozen others. You can see the full list on his website.

Curley bush
Source: Fryar's WebGallery

Outdoing the suspicious neighbors in neatness seems tame by comparison, and letting the yard go would have been defiant but childish. As for trying to blend, to disappear into the background, to disappear—good luck. Besides, that’s so cowardly; what he did took courage. It also combines the best of both the other approaches. It’s exquisitely neat, but it’s also bold, even in-your-face, yet in the most whimsical, graceful way.

So instead of trying to outdo his white neighbors at their own game, or refusing to play, he reinvented the game entirely—and so beautifully! Topiary usually strikes me as incredibly restricted, anal, and fundamentally misdirected. (Why would anyone want to do that to a plant?) But this stuff—this stuff is different. It’s expressive, not repressive. Like the original idea, the individual pieces have such whimsy and grace

The whole thing makes me want to cheer. There’s such joy here, and even seeing the pictures spreads that joy. Oh, if we could all respond to rejection with such creative resourcefulness, think what a generous world it would be.

The SCIway.net article mentioned above, posted last June, bore the title "Pearl Fryar's Topiary Gardens: Yard of the Century." This seems a fitting tribute to the man who set out to have his property named Yard of the Month.

_________________________________________________

SCIway has an extensive list of resources about Fryar at this site.
You can also watch him at work on YouTube.
For the secret of his name, see the New York Times article from 2005.
You may be interested to know that since that article was written, the Nature Conservancy has designated Fryar's garden one of its Preservation Projects. More about that, too, on his website.

Note: When I first posted this article, I didn't even mention that Fryar had won the Yard of the Month award. That seemed too important to omit, so I've added it.

20 Responses to Doing it Right: Pearl Fryar’s Vision

  1. Can’t but sit here and grin cheerfully.
    Steady hand . . . sense of humour . . . certainly brave . . .
    I don’t know enough about the trees and bushes you list – but aren’t some of them quite slow growing? If so, what disaster if it didn’t work more or less first time off!
    Arriving in the town without knowing the background and seeing the strange shapes of the trees in the street must be quite startling.
    I like best the photo of the topiary in front of the sunset / sunrise. If I were ever to have the privilege of visiting this garden – that’s the time of day I’d like t see it. (Probably at sunrise, when these wonderful shapes started just as that, shapes, then came more clearly into view.)
    Lucy
    PICTURES JUST PICTURES

  2. I’m sitting here with a grin on my face like you wouldn’t believe. When I read the preview in my feedreader, I thought to myself “Topiary? Oh noes…I hate topiary.” My random, freerange mind rebels against too much order and lack of imagination. But I love this. Because it’s chaotically glorious, imaginative, and makes me want to whoop and cheer. I think Pearl might be one of my new Hort Heroes. Thank you for sharing this so nicely.

  3. I’m so glad it made both of you grin too, because that’s precisely how this story makes me feel too–as though there’s hope in the world, and creative joy.
    I forgot to include that he did win the Yard of the Month award–three times. I’ve got to get that in.
    –Kate

  4. Aren’t his creations just the most amazing things you’ve ever seen? I saw him on a Gardener’s Diary episode once. He had the sweetest smile too.~~Dee

  5. I question the aesthetics of such
    mutilation of vegetation, bonsai
    included on one hand.
    On the other, whomever is into this
    aberration, must have lots of
    spare time and non polluting tools
    to perform such “artistic” shapes.

  6. I love his work. It’s like sculpture. I tried to get our colour supplement to do a piece on him but they were rather boring about it and wanted to know what the “peg” was. I said the peg was that he was just bloody interesting, but that wasn’t enough, apparently.

  7. Hello, and thanks for linking to my post – but even more so, thanks for posting about Mr. Fryar. It truly is a delightful place – and he’s a wonderfully infectious man. I love that he is now mentoring young folks in topiary…now how fun is that? I’m hoping to get up there again this spring, for another visit. I’ll let you know if I do! Perhaps all the garden blog folks should have a Pearl Fryar day…yes?

  8. Hi, Dee! They are indeed the most amazing things ever, and the ONLY inspiring topiary I’ve ever seen.
    Welcome, Antigonum C.. As I mentioned in the post, I generally react the same way you do to such “mutilations,” but somehow this is an exception. And not just because Mr. Pearl (I know that’s his first name, but it fits) appears to be such an incredibly nice guy, but because his work is so fine! But you’re right about the tools–no infections! He’s all organic, rescues dying, discarded plants, grows things bigger and healthier than anyone else–it’s amazing.
    I’m with you, Victoria. Maybe they’ll eventually see the light.
    Any time, Pam. (Was that your photo of the main street?) I thoroughly enjoy your blog, and got a kick out of finding your post on Fryar. As for a Pearl Fryar day–I’m all for it. But how do we celebrate–by taking a hedge-trimmer to our favorite bush? I don’t know if I have the courage.
    –Kate

  9. Reiterating my humble dissenting view: ABERRATION.

  10. Antigonum C.–good to see you back; I like the style with which you enter a minority report. Visit again.
    Kate

  11. You know, I’ve never liked topiary before. But this guy – I mean he has a live oak trained into a dense square! I mean, that’s just crazy. He has a dogwood shaped like a ball. He’s an artist – he seems something, has a vision, then creates it – even when the odds (a live oak!) would suggest it would be nuts to do.
    Yes – that photo is mine (the one’s on my post are mine from the day I visited his garden).
    Yep, a little late coming back here…oops.

  12. So glad you came by, Pam; no worries about the timing! Well, you and me both found Fryar a conversion experience–and I suspect there are plenty of others. Thanks for letting me lift your photos–they’re great.
    –Kate

  13. Found these articles by accident and I am in awe with the artistry of Mr. Fryar’s work. I wonder if he was ever a student at NCCU (1959), if so he’s a classmate. Proud of you Mr. Fryar.

  14. Welcome, Jerri. I don’t know for sure about NCCU; actually, I think he’s older than the class of ’59. If you find out, though, let me know.
    He is very cool, isn’t he.
    –Kate

  15. Hi,
    I am on the Friends of Pearl Fryar Board, working to preserve his garden.
    Thought you might like to know (and post) his current web address. It is http//www.pearlfryar.com
    The one you have posted no longer works.
    Thanks,
    Jean

  16. Thanks, Jean; I’ve updated the links, and I think they all work now.
    –Kate

  17. Esther/Lucy Corriander/3C pointed me to this post. very interesting! I love the crazy shapes. You may be interested in the topiary garden I show in my latest entry. :)

  18. I saw the special on HGTV, and was won over as a fan of Pearl Fryar and topiary. Previously I felt much as AM expressed here. Mr. Fryar and his garden seem to have a gift for changing hearts and minds, among his other gifts. I saw Esther’s comment on Monica’s blog, and was delighted to find your insightful post.

  19. Greetings, Monica, and welcome to the Manic. Thanks for following the 3cs advice; she/they may have identity issues, but she/they sure know her/their way around the garden web. Fancy her/their remembering my post! I did take a look at your post, and left a comment; that’s indeed another interesting use of topiary.
    Not to be needlessly obscure, let me explain that Monica posted about a topiary garden that reproduces Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte;” you’ll find the post at http://gardenfaerie.blogspot.com/2009/08/columbus-day-trip-part-1.html
    I MUST learn to inset links in comments.
    Welcome, Inda. That special on Fryar really is special, isn’t it? But then, so’s its subject. Thanks for the kind words–
    –Kate

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