Visitors come from all over the planet come to the small town of Bishopville, South Carolina (population 3,600), to see Pearl Fryar’s Topiary Garden. Since 1981, when Pearl acquired his first yard, he has been working tirelessly to cover it in whimsical topiaries. After hearing of the racial stereotype that African American’s ‘don’t keep up their yards,’ Fryar became determined to be the first African-American in the town of bishop to win the coveted “Yard of the Month Award” from the local Gardener’s Club.
Pearl began by rescuing discarded plants from the compost pile of local nurseries. Having no horticultural or gardening background, Pearl taught himself, and with patience, care, and skilled hands, watched as his plants grew and thrived. Despite advice from local gardeners, Pearl does not use pesticides or fertilizers and rarely waters. He has watched as plants not even meant to grow in a South Carolina climate flourish under his care.
As his first plants grew, Fryar began using an electric handsaw to transform them into remarkable abstract shapes. Over time he transformed his three-acre property into a surreal wonderland of over 300 topiaries, which he tends to daily. His topiaries are complemented by his homemade “junk-art” placed around the garden. From an article on HumanFlowerProject.com: “‘when you walk through, you almost forget it’s a garden.’ And that’s true. It’s more like wandering through a coral-forest, the kind that Max Ernst painted, or one of those expanses by Yves Tanguy, scattered about with mysterious dollops. In Fryar’s topiary garden, nature has been riddled with human force almost beyond recognition. Four-foot letters cut in the yard shout: PEACE LOVE + GOODWILL. Even the grass has a booming voice.” The Los Angeles Times writes about Fryar: “Armed with an electric hedge clipper, he goes to work, often at night with the help of a spotlight, a rickety ladder and a jury-rigged lift. He can invest years into perfecting an arch, a spiral, a box atop a sphere or a cone atop a box. Some trees take on the shapes of fish skeletons; others are fantasy forms from Fryar’s imagination.”
In addition to being a topiary genius, Pearl is known for his kindness, work ethic, dedication, perseverance, and strong belief in the power of positive thinking. Visitors of Fryar’s garden today can usually find him trimming his plants or riding his tractor on his property, eager to talk with people about his work or have them volunteer at the garden. He especially loves working with children in his community. One visitor wrote: “The pride he takes in the place is etched in his face, and his passion for his garden is beyond anything I have ever seen. If you’re experiencing a bit of the gardening doldrums, or any kind of doldrums for that matter, go visit this man. He is about as contagious a person as I have met in my life.”
In 2006, the Friends of Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden and the Garden Conservancy formed a partnership with Pearl Fryar. Through this partnership, they hope to preserve and maintain the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden and to further Pearl’s message of inspiration and hope. That same year, a documentary on Pearl’s life and work was released, entitled “A Man Named Pearl.” “It may seem that a man who does topiary is an unlikely superhero, but Pearl is a hero to people in his town and people who come to visit him,” said Brent Pierson, who produced and directed the film with Scott Galloway. “His message about how to tend your garden and tend your life is touching people.”
Obscura Day location: April 9, 2011.