JACKI LYDEN, host:
In the rural South Carolina town of Bishopville, empty storefronts line the historic Main Street. There's a maximum security prison, a landfill and a yard with nearly 400 plants and trees trimmed in fantastical shapes. The man who created them, 69-year-old Pearl Fryar, is something of an art world star. Tourists and curators travel from across the country to see his work.
From member station WHQR, Catherine Welch has this profile.
CATHERINE WELCH: Bushes spiraling toward the sky line the country road that leads to Pearl Fryar's topiary paradise. Diamonds, mushrooms, hearts in towering abstract shapes fill the yard around his house and spill out into the lot next door.
Mr. PEARL FRYAR: I actually look at plants as a means or a way of expression -my creative ability. Pruning is the same as painting to an artist that paints.
WELCH: Smack in the middle of the backyard, there's a square tree.
Mr. FRYAR: I came out one morning and said I wanted me a square tree. It took me four-and-a-half years to go from the mushroom look to get that tree to square up.
WELCH: And across the yard stands a tree that halfway up blossoms into a heart, and at the very top, the trunk forks out into what looks like a fishbone before flourishing into a diamond.
Mr. FRYAR: You see the ribs and all, I call that my fishbone style.
WELCH: Fryar has no formal training in gardening.
Mr. FRYAR: Someone gave me these the other days. They're lappers that you cut branches with, right? And these are just rakes, pitchforks and that's basically it.
WELCH: The son of a sharecropper picked up his first pair of clippers nearly 20 years ago to prove the point that someone like him could win Bishopville's yard of the month award. So after a full day working on the assembly line at the local bottling plant, 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 gardening centers for plants they are throwing out. He doesn't start with a sketch. He imagines what his elaborate topiaries will look like in a decade.
Mr. FRYAR: The moment you put a tree out or the moment you set this plant out, I pick up my hedge trimmer and start pruning from that point. And you prune it into...
(Soundbite of hedge trimmer)
Mr. FRYAR: ...the design that you want to create. You cannot wait two years later and let it grow and then cut it back into that, because the plant becomes too woody. So then by pruning, you prune into the design that you're imagining.
(Soundbite of hedge trimmer)
Ms. POLLY LAFFITTE (Former Curator, South Carolina State Museum): You can see how he has just thought through with a lot of patience how a plant would actually become this abstract form.
WELCH: Circling what must be a 20-foot tall juniper outside the South Carolina State Museum, Polly Laffitte checks in on the swirling branches of a piece she commissioned more than a decade ago.
Ms. LAFFITTE: You really start to study how he has twisted those branches together, how he's removed parts of the growth in order to get a certain form that he had in mind.
WELCH: Laffitte 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've 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.
Ms. LAFFITTE: I don't think that you necessarily have to separate the two, because I really do look at a garden, an exceptional garden, as a work of art. I think that we can look for that creativity and that passion and that expressive quality, whether it's working with living plants or with paint and sculpture.
Mr. FRYAR: Good morning. How ya'll doing?
Ms. LAFFITTE: I'm good. How about you?
Mr. FRYAR: I came a day when it's raining.
Ms. LAFFITTE: I know.
WELCH: Every day, dozens of tourists skip the museum and go straight to Fryar's house to decide for themselves.
Mr. FRYAR: I don't consider myself either one. I was sort of shocked when people from the art world came out and considered me an artist. I would have to say I'm more of, you know, I started out as a gardener. My goal was to get yard of the month.
WELCH: 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.
Fryar turned 70 this year, 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.
Again, Polly Laffitte.
Ms. LAFFITTE: It's a garden with a message and that is his legacy. So, if we're able to preserve it and keep it for posterity and encourage others to enjoy it, then we've come full circle in what we started, when we first started working with Pearl. And recognizing that those self-taught artists and the environments they create in their own communities are worth keeping, and that there is a legacy in them.
WELCH: The legacy is a simple one.
Mr. FRYAR: I think I'm a total success judging from where I came from. To come from a - the son of a sharecropper to get this kind of attention, it's got to make you feel pretty good about yourself.
WELCH: Not bad for someone who made soda cans at a factory for 36 years.
For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.