Shine: A Man Named Pearl

A few years ago, I was watching a gardening television show. (Why? I don’t have a garden.) I saw a clip about Pearl Fryar, a self-taught topiary artist. I felt a strange connection to Pearl, even though we have little in common on the surface. He’s a black man in his late 60s in a rural Southern town who creates living sculptures from plants in his backyard. I was captivated because I sensed the honesty in his art. What I mean is, there is a passion and commitment to his garden that precedes almost everything else. One might say it’s a calling. And by answering that calling with no expectations of accolades or money, he has brought joy to himself, to his community and to thousands of visitors. I thought he would be a perfect addition to SHINE.

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Pearl Fryar lives in an average house in an average neighborhood in Bishopville, South Carolina. But it is his yard that people come from all over the world to see. He single-handedly created a garden oasis of topiaries. It all started with one throwaway plant he found in a compost pile at a local nursery. Now he has more than 300 living sculptures.

image from pearlfryar.com

To say Pearl is hands-on is an understatement. He tends every aspect of his yard on all 3-1/2 acres: planting, watering, pruning, mowing, raking, sculpting—he does it all himself. And he’s done it all with no formal training, except for a three-minute lesson at the garden center. Horticulturists are usually astounded at what he has managed to create. “They say, ‘You shouldn’t be able to do that,'” Pearl says, “and I say, ‘I didn’t know that.'”

image from pearlfryar.com

Pearl has been following his passion despite the odds most of his life. He is as unlikely a topiary artist as you’ll find. His father was a sharecropper who instilled the value of hard work in all of his children. Although Pearl was a good student, college was an improbable option for a black man in the 1960s rural South. Then, when he tried to buy his first house in a predominantly white area, the neighborhood grumbled that he wouldn’t keep up his yard. He answered the naysayers by being the first black man to win the garden club’s Yard of the Month award. How’s that for poetic justice? “I’m writing my own book,” he says. “And the title is going to be ‘What You Don’t Find in the Other Books.’”

Topiary is not a hobby for people who prefer instant gratification. Most plants take years to train into the desired shape, usually an animal or geometric figure, though Pearl is partial to abstract forms. To turn a mushroom-shaped tree into a square one, Pearl worked for four to five years. “It’s a matter of perfecting it until I’m really comfortable with it,” he says. He never uses forms or wire cages to assist in molding the tree. His work is all freehand, but he goes in with a vision. “It wasn’t important to me to create a garden,” Pearl says. “I wanted to create a feeling that when you walk through, you feel differently than you did when you started.”

image from pearlfryar.com

Pearl’s wife, Metra, could be called a topiary widow, if there was such a thing. He has spent about 70 hours a week maintaining his topiaries for the past 30 years. Before Pearl retired from his job making aluminum cans, he would work in the garden from the time he got home until midnight or one in the morning, often by the light of his riding lawn mower.  Metra serenely accepted this calling Pearl felt he had to answer. “I just waited to see what was going to come about,” she says. “When he’s in the garden, it’s man relating to nature.”

The neighbors, however, were a little nonplussed by the goings on in the Fryars’ yard, at first. “You could always hear the lawn mowers going, the chainsaws. Something is wrong here,” one neighbor remembers thinking.  “But years passed and you could just see the miracle happening.”

The garden is a meditation of sorts for Pearl and for visitors. Some people have made multiple return trips to commune with the topiaries because “you can feel a spirit within the garden,” or because they get “a calm feeling,” or because they “feel love.” Maybe they are sensing the message that Pearl has inscribed into the lawn: “Love, Peace and Goodwill,” the inspiration behind the entire garden. Now in his late 60s, Pearl’s passion has remained strong. Charles Holmes, an arborist, says, “Pearl spends so much time in the garden, he has an almost mystical communion with his plants. He talks with them—he’s almost like a plant whisperer.”

image from pearlfryar.com

Pearl has become something of a local celebrity in Bishopville (population 3,600). Tour buses carrying church groups and youth campers show up regularly. He never turns away any of them and never charges anyone to tour his yard. He has a donation box near the mailbox for people who can afford it. “For people who can’t afford it, they are as welcome as someone who put in $100. Sometimes the very people who can’t afford it are the ones who most need to come,” he says.

In every cone-shaped shrub, every spiraling pine, every square dogwood is the message Pearl is trying to communicate. “There are always going to be obstacles. The thing about it is, you need to be strong enough so you don’t let those obstacles determine where you go in life.”


Coming up next on SHINE: Elise, the founder and operator of Pick of the Litter in Atlanta, is making lives better for the shelter animals no one wants. 

If you or anyone you know should be featured in SHINE, please let me know: contact  {at}   jacquelincangro  DOT   com.

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15 comments

  1. His work is beautiful! I was especially inspire by this quote: “They say, ‘You shouldn’t be able to do that,'” Pearl says, “and I say, ‘I didn’t know that.'” What a great approach to life!

    Like

    1. He has a vision and somehow he just knows what to do. Call it talent or passion. He’s definitely brought his gift to the world.

      Like

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