Gardener Prunes A Topiary Paradise

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  • Some 400 topiaries fill the yard of Pearl Fryar's Bishopville, S.C., home.
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    Some 400 topiaries fill the yard of Pearl Fryar's Bishopville, S.C., home.
    Catherine Welch for NPR
  • Like all of his elaborate designs, this topiary knot did not start as a sketch. Fryar just started trimming.
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    Like all of his elaborate designs, this topiary knot did not start as a sketch. Fryar just started trimming.
    Catherine Welch for NPR
  • The fishbone technique (at the top) has become Fryar's signature.
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    The fishbone technique (at the top) has become Fryar's signature.
    Catherine Welch for NPR
  • Fryar gets free meals in exchange for trimming sculptures in front of this Waffle House in Bishopville, S.C. He's known to visit four or five times a day.
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    Fryar gets free meals in exchange for trimming sculptures in front of this Waffle House in Bishopville, S.C. He's known to visit four or five times a day.
    Bill Chappell/NPR
  • Fryar has brought international attention to Bishopville and his humility has made him a beloved local figure in a town that's still racially divided.
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    Fryar has brought international attention to Bishopville and his humility has made him a beloved local figure in a town that's still racially divided.
    Bill Chappell/NPR

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Pearl Fryar's yard in rural Bishopville, S.C., has made him something of an art-world star. Fryar, 69, has trimmed 400 plants and trees into fantastical shapes like diamonds, mushrooms, hearts and towering abstract designs. They fill the yard around his house and spill out into the lot next door.

"Pruning is the same as painting to an artist that paints. I look at plants as a means to express my creative ability," Fryar says.

Squares And Fishbones

Smack in the middle of the back yard, there's a square tree.

"So I came out one morning and decided 'I want me a square tree.' It took me four-and-a-half years to go from a mushroom look to get that tree to square," Fryar says.

Across the yard, stands a tree that halfway up blossoms into a heart. At the very top, the trunk forks out into what looks like a fishbone before flourishing into a diamond.

"I call this my fishbone style," he says

Fryar has no formal training in gardening.

This son of a sharecropper picked up his first pair of clippers nearly 20 years ago to prove that he could win Bishopville's yard of the month award.

Pearl Fryar was the subject of an award-winning documentary in 2006 called A Man Named Pearl. Fryar was also profiled on South Carolina Educational Television network.

So after a full day working on the assembly line at the local bottling plant — where he worked for 36 years — Fryar would pull out his ladder, grab his clippers and work late into the night.

He won that award and just kept going.

Fryar scavenges garden centers for plants they're throwing out.

He doesn't start with a sketch. And he imagines what his elaborate topiaries will look like in a decade.

"The moment you put a tree out or set a plant out, I pick up my hedge trimmer and start pruning from that point. And you prune it into the design you want to create," Fryar says. "You can't wait two years later and let it grow and cut it back into that because the plant becomes too woody. So then by pruning, you prune into the design you're imagining."

An Artist Or A Gardener?

Circling a 20-foot tall juniper outside the South Carolina State Museum, Polly Lafitte checks in on the swirling branches of a piece she commissioned more than a decade ago.

"You can see how he has thought through with a lot of patience how a plant would become this abstract form," Lafitte says. "You really start to study how he's twisted those branches together, how he's removed parts of the growth in order to get a certain form he had in mind."

Lafitte learned of Fryar in the mid 1990s while putting together an exhibition on self-taught artists. She commissioned one of his topiaries, but growing a piece would have taken too long. So Fryar dug up the juniper, loaded it onto a flatbed truck and hauled it 50 miles down the highway. It was the museum's first living piece of sculpture. And it sparked a debate about whether Fryar is an artist or a gardener.

"I don't think you have to separate the two. Because I really do look at a garden, an exceptional garden, as a work of art," Lafitte says. "I think that we can look for that creativity and that passion and that expressive quality whether it's working with living plants or paint and sculpture."

But don't ask Fryar to tell you.

"I don't consider myself either one. I was shocked when people from the art world came out and considered me an artist," Fryar says. "I started out as a gardener. My goal was to get yard of the month. So that was the gardening point of view."

Fryar did more than that. He brought international attention to Bishopville. And his humility has made him a beloved local figure in a town that's still racially divided.

Leaving A Legacy

Fryar turns 70 next month, and his friends bought him a cherry picker to keep him off tall ladders. He predicts it would take about five years of neglect for all of his work to disappear. And so the search is on for either an artist or a gardener who is willing to move to Bishopville and learn Fryar's techniques.

"It's a garden with a message and that is his legacy, so if we're able to preserve it for posterity and encourage others to enjoy it then we've come full circle when we started working with Pearl that those self-taught artists are worth keeping and there is a legacy in them," Lafitte says.

The legacy is a simple one.

"I think I'm a total success judging from where I came from. To come from the son of a sharecropper to get this kind of attention, it's got to make you feel pretty good about yourself," Fryar says.

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