Human Flower Project
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.”
At the northwest corner of the State Museum stands Fryar’s “Heart Within a Heart” a Hollywood twist juniper, trained and shorn into abstract art. A backdrop of magnolias and the red brick museum building itself are visible through his open design: loops and boas of clipped greenery, the crest trimmed into a gentle spiral. The State Museum’s current art curator, Paul Matheny, says that Fryar is commissioned to prune “Heart within a Heart” and the two smaller topiary gardens twice a year; in the interval the grounds crew trims along his lines.
Whether to encourage others or to flaunt his powers – or both—Fryar enjoys making his strenuous artistry sound like a cinch. “Pearl always says, ‘Oh this is so easy anybody can do it,’” Jean Grosser remarks, adding, “You could say that about Jackson Pollock’s work: ‘That’s so easy, anybody could do it,’ and I always say to students, ‘Yeah, but would you?”” After putting away a “Pearl Special” (one scrambled egg, grits, and toast) one morning at the Waffle House, Fryar starts in again, “The thing about gardening – it’s simple. That’s what I tell everyone.” Metra rolls her eyes, “That’s what you say, but you didn’t do that. Yours is simple to you now, because you grew with it.”
Neighbor Sammie Sherrod and his own topiaries
The fact is not anyone could do what Fryar has done, and that, in part is, what makes his garden art. Neighbor Sammie Sherrod who’s watched it grow, laboring over his own trees for a dozen years now, says Fryar’s work mystifies him. “He has a way of, how can I say?, manipulating plants to do things that he wants them to do, by training, bending wiring clipping. And the plants seem to bend to his will.”
For Bill Noble, director of preservation projects at the New York-based Garden Conservancy, Fryar’s achievement is one of eloquence as well as form. “It is a garden with a story and a message behind it,” Noble says, “a broad calling to people, especially younger people, that the power of creativity and originality is within them.” Noble visited Bishopville in early summer; since then, the organization has added Fryar’s yard to a choice group of 40 garden preservation efforts across the U.S.
Like any artwork, Fryar’s topiary invites interpretation. Reverend Jerome McCray, minister of Bethel AME Church and the Fryars’ pastor, sees the garden’s theme as “unity.” McCray has stopped by just at dusk, and catches up with Pearl Fryar in the yard next to a bed where Metra’s roses are in bloom. “If you stand back and look, you see different plants of all kinds, which represent people from all nationalities,” McCray observes. “Some seem to have it and some seem not to have it. Some seem to be dressed well, some seem to be dressed not so well. Isn’t that life?”
Fryar trims his ‘Square tree,’ July 2005
For Jean Grosser, who’s bringing Fryar together with the art students at Coker College, the garden’s message is one of endurance and vision. “He knows that when he ties two little tiny twigs together, that in four years, this huge spiral or amorphous twisting form is going to emerge. He invests in the future. It’s all about knowing what will occur. Students want immediate gratification. When they go to his garden and realize that this is about as old as some of them are, and then they see how slow it is in terms of what he does every day—I can’t teach them that lesson. He’s so passionate and excited; it’s as if it’s all happening at once, and it is all around him. But it has to do with a kind of methodical, persistent dedication. If they can get even an inkling of that, they’re home free.”
Fryar’s strange landscape grew from “a fine disregard,” what Kirk Varnedoe, former curator of the Museum of Modern Art, called the hallmark of modernism. “I could afford my talent,” Fryar says, thanks to a union wage and now a union pension. Setting out, like most artists, to distinguish himself, Fryar refused the stiff and cutesy vernaculars of topiary. He ignored horticultural advice, growing Canadian trees in the steamy midlands of South Carolina. In two decades of gas-powered performance art, some of it 20 feet in the air, Fryar surpassed what an ordinary person with 24 hours in a day can do.
Fryar’s lawn preaches
PEACE LOVE & GOODWILL
A force bigger and older than all these makes his garden masterpiece peculiarly Southern: his disregard for this landscape’s engulfing power, his perpetual conquest of green. After a downpour, a thicket at the edge of Bishopville swells up formidably. Vines wrap the porch-posts of a house on Broad Acres Road, while down the lane, Pearl Fryar’s impeccable lawn has turned chartreuse and begins to glow in the dusk like radium.
(Note: Donations for the preservation of Fryar’s Topiary Garden may be made to The Garden Conservancy. A version of this story appeared in The Oxford American, 2005.)