A Hedge Against Mediocrity

Thursday, June 27, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Just outside the Bishopville city limits
BISHOPVILLLE, South Carolina—After buttoning up our exploration of Dalton Stevens' surprising collection, we cruised back into town in search of Bishopville's other local superstar, Pearl Fryar.  As we reached the corner of Broad Acres Road and saw the impressive sign pointing the way to South Carolina's most famous topiary garden, we wondered if we were headed for something stodgy and formal.  We were not.  
In a garden that would delight Dr. Seuss, Pearl Fryar, a self-taught topiary artist, has cut and trimmed, twisted and maneuvered, cajoled and urged plants into spirals, arches, corkscrews and other abstract shapes that draw the eye and invite closer inspection.  This is not how Mr. Fryar found the property on Broad Acres Road when he purchased it.  "When we bought this property, it was a corn field," he told us.  "We had to wait for the crop to be harvested before we could start building our house."
Twin arches invite visitors into the garden
Born the son of North Carolina sharecroppers in 1939, Mr. Fryar attended college in his home state before migrating to New York, where he met the love of his life and decided to stay.  In 1976, the Fryars moved south when Pearl took a job with a beverage can manufacturer in Bishopville.  Having grown up in the segregated South, Fryar was stung but not surprised when a local real estate agent informed him that their prospects of purchasing a home for sale in a white-only area was staunchly opposed by the neighbors.  "Black people don't keep up their yards," one of the residents confided to the white realtor, who shared the remark with her clients. 

Deciding they didn't want to live in the thick of intolerance, the Fryars bought the cornfield on a street where blacks were welcome, and there they built their home.  Though he hadn't allowed himself to be angered by the overt bigotry, Fryar had not forgotten it.  Upon learning that the local garden club awarded a plaque for "Yard of the Month," Pearl resolved to become the first African American to achieve the honor.

Pearl Fryar freely shares his wisdom and time.
Laboring by street light after completing his 12-hour shift at the factory, Pearl Fryar nurtured the local nursery's cast-off plants back to life in his garden.  He knew that nothing ordinary would gain him the garden club's attention and sought to create a landscape they could not ignore.  After hearing about topiary, he absorbed all his local nurseryman knew about the subject in a three-minute lesson.  From there he was on his own.  Though it took five years of work and ultimately required intervention by a local senator because the Fryar home lies just outside the Bishopville city limits, Pearl's artistry and intuitive horticultural skills did win him the 'Yard of the Month' title in 1985.  But that was only the beginning.

Sculptures in the driveway island, like all the Fryar topiary, are trimmed every 4 to 6 weeks
By the mid-1990s, what had become known as the Fryar Topiary Garden had gained the attention of a much larger audience.  Featured in dozens of regional and then national magazine and newspaper articles and widely acclaimed by art and botanical enthusiasts, Pearl's little yard project inspired a 2006 documentary film called A Man Named Pearl (available on Netflix).  Since his acclaim has expanded, Pearl continues to receive frequent invitations to speak about his work and his philosophy at locations across the country from Harvard to NASA.  He has personally received awards from a long list of universities, foundations and arts commissions, pruning his way to international fame.

"I can topiary anything at this point"
Bishopville's historic dependence on agriculture has thrust the town and Lee County into the 'most impoverished' title among South Carolina counties.  Swelling unemployment has squeezed the city's population, as locals have been forced to move elsewhere for jobs.  In the midst of this crisis, Pearl Fryar's garden attracts more than 10,000 annual visitors from across the nation and around the globe.

In 2006, Fryar's supporters organized a nonprofit foundation to preserve his legacy beyond his lifetime.  At age 73, he is grateful for this assistance.  His plan to phase various sections of the garden into a more natural state have been abandoned as he trains an apprentice to carry on his work.  The Garden Conservancy, which provided the fancy sign at the corner, has also adopted the garden as a work of great originality and offers resources to help ensure its preservation.

With no training in horticulture, Pearl Fryar has induced plants to form extraordinary sculptures that botanists would have deemed impossible.  He seeks to do the same with people, harboring a special passion for lifting up youth who have talent but may not produce high test scores.  The Fryar Foundation underwrites scholarships for just such young people. 

Academic performance does not necessarily predict potential for success, Pearl contends.  If a young person has talent and passion and is willing to invest hard work, traditional measures are irrelevant, he says, crediting his father with instilling in him the value of a strong work ethic:  "He always told me, 'I want you to be somebody.'  And I did." 

In his work and his life, Pearl Fryar seeks to have a positive impact, striving to create a garden which will inspire visitors to feel better when they leave than when they arrived.  Carefully carved into the ground in large flowering letters are the guiding principles of Pearl's garden and his life.
Pearl Fryar's Garden Stats:
  • 3.5 acres
  • 400+ plants
  • pruned every 4-6 weeks
  • 10,000 annual visitors
  • plants include:  junipers, hollies, Leyland cypress, pines, oaks, dogwoods, spruce, cedars, boxwoods and others
Pearl's neighbors have been inspired by his garden and joined in the neighborhood whimsy