Human Flower Project
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Evergreen Surrealist—Pearl Fryar
A topiary artist bends the lush Carolina landscape to his will.
Pearl Fryar presides over his yard in Bishopville, SC
All photos: Julie Ardery
Lee County, South Carolina, calls itself “the land of cotton,” failing to mention kudzu and pigweed. Staying even here means constant pushing back against green: mow, chop or you drown in vegetation. On the outskirts of Bishopville, pop. 3650, only Pearl Fryar has pushed with the fervor to make yard work an oration and turn plants into surrealist art.
“When I moved here Christmas of ’81, this was a cornfield,” Fryar, age 67, explains. “I had to wait until they harvested the corn to build the house.” The three acres around his ranch-style home are now a bristling dreamland: some five hundred plants sculpted one by one into totems, Mobius coils, letters, plugs. It’s a landscape to make Monet’s beard stand on end, more than beautiful: startling and eerie.
“When I hear people describe my garden as something pretty, then I missed the point. Or they missed the point,” Fryar says. “Because you don’t describe art by ‘pretty.’ It has to have some other effect. And that’s what I try to do.”
In one cluster of trees there’s a winking face Fryar refers to as “my Cyclops.” Behind the house, a huge live oak has been clipped into a block of solid foliage, flat as a dance floor on top. Across a sward of grass in the side yard, mowed short as a putting green (but four times the size), begonias ride like red boats down sinuous incisions in the turf, two halves of a giant heart.
“When you walk through, you almost forget it’s a garden,” he says. 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.
Growing up on a sharecropping farm 150 miles away, in Clinton, North Carolina, Fryar never imagined he would be laboring with plants in the South Carolina sun by choice. His family worked fields of corn, soybeans, cotton. “We grew a lot of truck crops: pepper, cucumber, squash, beans. I was trying to get away from it,” he says.
Smart and sociable, Fryar was also locked in overdrive. He graduated from high school in 1958 and went on to North Carolina College in Durham (now NC Central), majoring in mathematics and chemistry. In those years, ’58-’61, Fryar and other North Carolina college students weren’t just taking courses but making history. He calls that time “the social revolution.” Sit-ins had begun in Greensboro, and Durham was the next town down the road. Students on Fryar’s campus joined kids from Duke, North Carolina State and University of North Carolina to hold demonstrations over Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter in Durham. Fryar says, “When we’d get out of class, we’d come down there and picket.”
“If my parents had come up to my college and found me out there doing some of the stuff I was doing, they would have hit the ceiling. I used to write home, ‘Mama. I got nothing to do with this.’” Fryar remembers, laughing. But he was emboldened to risk all. “I had no choice,” he says now.
In 1961 he was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea as a chemical weapons specialist. A Korean friend took him to a stunning place off limits to American GIs, filled with flowers and waterfalls. Fryar can’t recall the name of the place, just the vision of it: he says, “That was the first time I ever saw a magnificent paradise garden.”
He returned to the U.S. in ‘64, and caught up with Metra Raynor, his high school sweetheart, who had moved from North Carolina to New York and was working at a sunglasses factory. They married in 1966. Fryar had taken a job with a can manufacturing company, and they settled in Queens, where their son, Patrick, was born in 1968.
National Can (now Rexam) transferred Fryar and his family to Atlanta in 1975, and to a new plant in Bishopville the following year. Working in northern factories, Fryar had enjoyed union benefits and wages. He advocated a union in Bishopville, too, and once the United Steelworkers of America was voted in, he became president of Local #8634.
No mistaking the Fryar home, with its topiary address
Through all these years the Fryars lived in apartments, always “on the second floor.” Who’d be thinking of a garden? Only after he and Metra bought property just outside Bishopville’s city limits, in 1981, did Fryar’s genius for landscape explode. “I’d always wanted a horseshoe drive,” he says. And so he built one over 10 months, mixing the cement in a wheelbarrow and adding decorative flourishes of inlaid brick.
Fryar’s decision to chop up hundreds of plants is mysterious, maybe even to him. He always tells people: “I wanted to win Yard of the Month,” but that’s like saying Bill Clinton wanted to be Homecoming King. Looking around Fryar’s three-acre masterpiece, the question of motivation is overshadowed by the question of achievement. How in the hell did one man do all this? On a July evening the vapor light at the top of a pole swathed in 30 feet of creeping juniper comes on. Surrounded by two decades of creation, he explains, “I decided to put my energy into something I could control.”
Setting out to turn his first-ever yard into a showplace, he visited Spitzer Nursery in nearby Camden and spotted a quirky two-tiered pompom plant, not for sale. The nurseryman gave him “a three minute lesson,” in pruning; “I didn’t even know what topiary was,” Fryar says. The garden took off. After working 12-hour shifts troubleshooting at the can factory, Fryar would come home, set up his ladders and “cut bushes” under spotlights, sometimes until 1 a.m.
It took five years, but 165 Broad Acres Road did win Yard of the Month from Bishopville’s Iris Garden Club. Fryar’s property was disqualified at first, being outside the city limits, but for someone whose holly bushes spelled “L-O-V-E,” the rules would have to bend.
The garden includes Fryar’s own sculptures and store-bought plaster pieces
“You either love it or hate it,” garden writer Ethne Clarke concedes about all topiary. The decorative clipping of shrubs and trees has been going on for at least 2000 years (for just as long as people have wondered why). Pliny the Younger (AD 62-110) left us details of one garden in Tuscany with boxwood shaped as ”diver animals” and “cut into a thousand different forms: sometimes into letters expressing the name of the master: sometimes that of the artificer: whilst here and there little obelisks rise….”
The 17th century was topiary’s heyday, when Andre Le Notre designed the gardens at Versailles for Louis XIV, the Sun King. The French had special predilection for hedges clipped into arabesques, a kind of green brocade, while the English favored bell shapes, pyramids and knots. Later, the Romantic movement in English gardening would try to stamp out all this silliness, its proponents preferring to fill their estates with willows, lakes and ersatz ruins rather than mazes of clipped box.
Since Pearl Fryar began, he’s learned all this history and more, and then unlearned it. Bishopville native and garden writer Tom Woodham, now a senior editor of Veranda magazine, was dazzled by a visit to Fryar’s yard and afterward mailed him several books on topiary. “I came this close of doing what they were doing in England,” Fryar says. He began experimenting with the forms he saw in pictures but suddenly changed course. “Why should I change my style for what someone else is doing, because I’m not going to get credit for it,” Fryar says. “I just dropped the books.”
He’s been to Cypress Gardens, Florida, and admired the topiary peacocks there, plants so huge, he reports, “You walk inside and look at the sprinkler system.” He holds in lower regard Disneyworld’s topiaries. Most of the figures there were grown through armatures or molded in sphagnum moss and then plugged with fast-growing vines like ficus and ivy. “They use wire cages,” Fryar sniffs, “so there’s absolutely no skill in that.”
His own garden includes some forty species of evergreens, many, like Norway spruce, considered outright impossibilities for growing this far South. Fryar avoids the standard topiary motifs – geometric forms and animal shapes. His goal was always something else: “real creative topiary, that’s like out of this world.” He declares, “I’m the only one that you really will see take a plant and really create a living sculpture.”
‘Fishbone,’ made from a Leyland cypress
Whether it’s formal or whimsical, conventional topiary is an art of volume. A hedge plant like privet, boxwood, yew, or (a species Fryar prefers) compacted holly is trimmed back again and again until its foliage forms a tight surface, plush and almost velvety to the eye. Fryar can make topiary this smooth and plump, but he also disrupts the effect, radically, cutting deep notches, even holes through his plants. For one of his most spectacular pieces, the 20 foot “Fishbone, “ – a labor of seven years – he clipped the inner foliage from low branches of a Leyland cypress and bound them up with wire; as the tree grew, the bare, twisted trunk and limbs fattened and are now exposed, framed by dense brows of greenery.
This combination of lush volume and bare, contorted line in a single plant is bizarre. Fryar calls it the “abstract skeleton look,” his unique creation. Neither the tourists who happen by nor the gardening pros who make pilgrimages to Bishopville have seen anything like it. It’s this bold, singular style that has won Fryar the accolades of gardeners and artists, too.
One of the first was Jean Grosser, a sculptor and professor at Coker College in nearby Hartsville. “I have never thought of Pearl as a plant person,” Grosser says. but “as a sculptor,” They met eighteen years ago, when a horticulturist at the college’s Kalmia Gardens insisted that Grosser make the seventeen-mile trip to Bishopville. “I’ve seen other topiary and I’ve thought, ‘That’s decorative, that’s beautiful,’” she says. “I’ve never seen any other plant and said ‘Oh that’s art.’”
Grosser brought her basic design class to Fryar’s garden that year to draw, and has done so each year since. The assignment, she says, isn’t to sketch pictures of topiary but to discover Fryar’s interplay of lines and curves through the garden, and to see “how he is sculpting the space that’s in between the plants as well.” Two years ago Grosser arranged to have Pearl Fryar made an artist-in-residence at Coker. He’s paid as an adjunct professor to team-teach her introductory design class in the fall and upper-level sculpture students in the spring.
Now, the student-artists are working with Fryar on an installation at the college: a garden path combining masonry, ceramics, and topiary. Ten years ago Fryar tried a topiary club with high schoolers in Bishopville. Last year he worked with more than 400 students in Sumter, SC, designing, building, planting and trimming an installation for the town’s art celebration.
Down the street beyond Fryar’s property, you can spot a line of sci-fi cedars; Sammie Lee Sherod dug them out of the woods and has trained them into pom-pom towers. On the next lot, Robert Benjamin has clipped arborvitae trees into massive scrolls of electric green. When a visitor implies Fryar’s neighbors are mere imitators, he corrects her. “I don’t think you could say ‘imitating.’ They come up with their own style and technique. They want to be creative themselves.” It’s that Fryar’s topiary is contagious—Tolstoy’s litmus test for art.
Fryar’s topiaries adorn the Bishopville Waffle House
The garden is private, no billboards to point you there, no admission fees to pay, just a mailbox for donations. Still, all over town there are clues. The John Deere franchise now has a coiling tree in front of its office. The local managers gave Fryar the extended gas-powered hedge-clipper that’s saving him many ladder-hours with each trim of the garden. Other living sculptures around Bishopville signal trades or thanks: Smith Concrete Supply (“I get anything I want from here,” Fryar says) and St. John A.M.E. (the church of a neighbor in whose yard Fryar’s public often parks). The most incongruous example stands surrounded by pavement at the Waffle House, just across Interstate 20. Corkscrews of Torulosa juniper and smaller junipers trimmed into floating cubes of tufted green turn a scene you could find in 10,000 towns into an eye-popper, straight out of The Jetsons. For Fryar’s trouble and his art, he and Metra enjoy “Eat the rest of your life free” privileges.
In 1998, curators Tom Stanley and Polly Laffitte commissioned Pearl Fryar to install two beds of topiaries at the entrance to the State Museum in Columbia for the exhibition “Still Worth Keeping: Communities, Preservation, and Self-Taught Artists.” In the meantime, Fryar had a curatorial idea of his own: to move a sculpted tree from his garden to the museum grounds, as part of the permanent collection. “The State Museum certainly wasn’t expecting to have an accessioned piece of plant sculpture,” Laffitte, the museum’s former art curator, says now. “We took the risk and it worked out very well.”
Monday, December 18, 2006
Autochrome—And Gone to Heaven
In early color photographs of flowers, the ephemeral lives on.
Hausangestellte der Familie,
Roedenbeck Sehlde, 1928-1930
By Käthe Buchler
Image: MUSEUM FÜR PHOTOGRAPHIE
Flowers are not in rhythm with the tempo of these times—ever since we threw out the seasons and replaced them with switches. If something’s not instantaneous as a phone call or fixed as a monument, who knows what you do with it? This on/off, virtual-or-granite mentality, in our view, partly explains why flowers are being displaced as gifts. Bouquets are neither as permanent as knickknacks nor as consumable as wine or a massage. Like all living and dying things, flowers are in between.
Still Life with Dahlias by Käthe Buchler
Image: MUSEUM FÜR PHOTOGRAPHIE
In old photographs of flowers, you can see this quality, of being on the way. Take a look at the pictures of Käthe Buchler on view through January 14 at the Museum of Photography in Braunschweig, Germany. Buchler, working between 1913 and 1930, was an early color photographer. Her vases of dahlias and blossoming trees, so different from contemporary color pictures, look, truly, like flowers that have died and gone to heaven. The colors are muted but palpable. What they may lack in factuality, they regain in effect—blooms in the mind.
Buchler’s talent found a marvelous vehicle in the technique called Autochrome, one of the earliest methods of color photography. The Lumiere Brothers, who patented the process, used a mosaic of potato starch grains dyed yellow, red and blue, the gaps among them filled in with lampblack (a kind of root vegetable pixel). The image was projected through these grains onto glass, making dark but translucent positives best viewed like tiny stained-glass windows, with backlighting.
Crazy Legs dahlias
Photo: L.R. Fortney
Compare Buchler’s picture of dahlias (above) with this very fine contemporary photograph, at left. Both are beautiful. (And these later flowers have doubtless gone on to heaven, too.) Why is the older one so much more elegiac and suggestive? The sensibilities behind them are different. One has the gift of accuracy; it has stopped an instant like a specimen, to keep for all time. In Kathe Buchler’s picture there’s a different kind of lasting —not a record of dahlias but a memory.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Capers: Everybody Having Some?
An unopened flower bud grows out of ancient walls and can kick modern-day ones down.
Photo: About Home Cooking
They are kind of evil looking, or so we thought until learning that capers are actually the green buds of Capparis spinosa, a flowering plant of the Mediterranean. Our cousin Ben, who used to live in Positano, Italy, remembers caper bushes growing right out of the retaining walls of nearby almond orchards. Who scrambled up there, we wonder, to pick the buds before they bloomed?
According to one authority, the flower buds are sun-dried first, then pickled in brine. “The taste is slightly astringent and pungent, and they can lend piquancy to many sauces and condiments.” That’s putting it mildly. Their flavor is so powerful and lasting that social occasions where they’re served require a pact: we’re all eating this, and whoever backs out will turn green.
Image: Jan Meemelink
Cooking expert Lydia Walshin reports that capers “pair well with artichokes, fish, fatty meats like lamb, olives, potatoes, and tomatoes, and are an essential component of tapenade. The taste is fresh, salty, pungent, and slightly flowery-lemony.” When you put it that way, we’re on board.
Since capers are harvested and bitten in the bud, who’s ever seen the flowers? Here they are. It turns out they’re quite beautiful: pink, with cat-like whiskers. The flowers seem to be as short-lived as the buds are long-tasting. This link from Purdue describes medicinal uses of capers, some of which should not be mentioned in polite conversation. Let’s just say they’re beneficial, high and low.
We’re planning to try some tapenade on guests tomorrow night—right after everyone agrees to the pact. This recipe comes from The Meat and Potatoes Cookbook, as adapted by Robin Robertson:
Look for good-quality, brine-cured olives, not the canned supermarket variety.
If using a food processor instead of the traditional mortar and pestle, be careful not to overprocess – the tapenade should retain some texture. Both large, meaty Kalamata olives and the smaller, sweet Gaeta variety are great in this recipe.
Capparis spinosa growing from a wall in Palma de Mallorca, Spain
Photo: Jardin Mundani
1 1/2 cups Kalamata or Gaeta olives, pitted
3 tablespoons capers, drained
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
In a food processor or mortar, combine the olives, capers, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper. Slowly add the oil and pulse or work with the pestle into a coarse paste, retaining some bits of olive and caper for texture. Taste to adjust the seasonings. Stored tightly covered in the refrigerator, this will keep well for a week or two.
Makes about 2 cups
Top Knots of Tajikistan
In the land where four mountain ranges meet, the giant fritillaria is at home.
Carrying water in Tajikistan
Photo: P. Taylor for European Commission, ECHO
To live at the intersection of mountain ranges takes, what? Exceptional fortitude, for one thing.
We welcome our most recent visitor from Tajikistan, west of China, north of Afghanistan, way up high. We’ve been reading about your country and its stunning scenery, also gazing at some of the gorgeous flowers native to your part of Central Asia.
1998 stamp from Tajikistan
Photo: Plant Stamps
One of the most impressive is the giant fritillary. The Missouri Botanical Gardens botanists single out Petilium eduardii [=Fritillaria eduardii]: “the plants sometimes are as tall as 1 m (3 ft) in height with as many as 20 large flowers.” Exceptional all right. The Imperial Crown Fritillaria is also a Tajikistan native, we believe. Its huge, heavy blossoms splayed out from the tops of canelike stems seem less like kings’ crowns to us than clowns’ collars (perhaps an American short-sightedness).
This site provides some information on growing fritillaries, with good precautionary detail: “Plant the bulbs 4 to 5 inches deep and angle them slightly sideways to keep water from collecting in the depression at the top of the bulb.” We also have enjoyed the more and less delicate ways fritillary fragrance has been described: “An unpleasant odor,” says one source. Another: “stinks to high heaven.” And a writer worthy of this plant: “The flowers smell of wet fur and garlic.”
Fitillaires couronne imperiale dans un vase de cuivre
Vincent van Gogh (1886)
Photo: Julie Ardery
Our first encounter with Fritillaria imperialis was completely odorless, a painting of them in a copper vase by Vincent van Gogh, in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, Paris. Not every painter would be up to this subject, just one with no fear of orange (i.e. exceptional fortitude).
Wiki says the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan are called “the knot,” where the Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Hindu Kush ranges converge. Where else but in these valleys would a three-foot fritillary deign to grow?