Photo by Randall Andrews
Pearl Fryar, a self-taught topiary artist, is the subject of the new documentary “A Man Named Pearl.”
Topiary pearls of wisdom
A Man Named Pearl
Opens July 18
18 W. Houston St.
By JUDITH STILES
Pearl Fryar, 68, never preaches the gospel of love, peace and goodwill from a pulpit. Instead, in his beautiful garden in Bishopville, South Carolina, he uses his hands and hedge-clippers to sculpt magnificent topiary shrubs in the shape of words that spread this message.
“A Man Named Pearl,” a thoughtful new documentary directed by Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson, reveals the extraordinary story of how Pearl, the son of an African-American sharecropper, overcomes bigotry and racism by taking junk plants and lovingly transforming them into magical topiary art forms. Now, after several decades of trimming and tweaking, his garden attracts thousands of visitors from around the world, who visit his three-and-a-half acre backyard sanctuary to experience its beauty and benevolence.
In 1976, when Pearl tried to buy his first home, he was unwelcome in an all-white neighborhood, in part because, as a local homeowner complained, “he wouldn’t keep up his yard.” Instead of becoming bitter about racial stereotypes, Pearl bought a home in another neighborhood and proved the man wrong by creating a garden paradise. His longtime minister, Rev. Jerome McCray said, “It’s the one place in all of South Carolina that people can go, both black and white, and feel the love.”
In a telephone interview from his home, Pearl credited Jackie Robinson with breaking down barriers in professional baseball, which became the inspiration for him to work hard and have big dreams. “Every kid in my neighborhood played baseball, and in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, he became our first role model,” recounted Pearl. “I dreamed of replacing Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers, but when I knew I wasn’t good enough at baseball, Jackie Robinson gave me hope and paved the way for me to succeed at something else.” His new passion became fashioning plants into exotic figurative forms, 20-foot geometric compositions, and complex intertwining letters that convey his message of love. Pearl accomplished this without any formal training in horticulture. “It is one time in my life when ignorance paid off,” he said with a chuckle poking fun at the horticulture experts who told him, “You shouldn’t be able to do such things with shrubs!”
The radiant and lovely Metra Fryar shines in the film as she recalls marrying Pearl when they were very young, because she believed he had “potential.” Mrs. Fryar doesn’t work in the topiary gardens but her ears are always alert for moments of silence if Pearl is atop a shaky ladder and the buzzing of the clippers halts. The first to praise Pearl for being careful and precise in his work, she describes how the trimming and clipping are never random, but born out of designs that Pearl visualizes, often three years in advance of a completed project.
Cinematographer J. Steven Anderson possesses a gardener’s eye, as he deftly zooms in on Pearl’s gardening rhythms. Anderson shadows Pearl as he sculpts the shrubs in such a way that you might find yourself leaning and reaching along with Pearl as he perfects the curves and angles.
For garden lovers, the film discloses some of Pearl’s secrets, which are astonishingly simple and practical. For example, when he travels, he doesn’t use sprays or fertilizers to protect the plants. He doesn’t even have a watering system, opting instead to dig trenches around the plants that collect rainwater. “Think of the forest. Everything grows and the forest never waters, sprays, or fertilizes. It has a natural organic recycling process and it works for me,” Pearl shared, defying the rules of standard horticulture wisdom.
These days, Pearl could easily boast about his extensive awards such as exhibiting his work in the permanent collection of the South Carolina State Museum, in Columbia, or being named nationally for his exceptional garden by the Preservation Project of the Garden Conservancy. Pearl, however, is more interested in talking about his new mission: “developing programs that help the C-minus student who doesn’t test well and has low self-esteem. My program will help them discover what they are good at and what they can achieve through hard work.” According to Polly Laffitte of the Garden Conservancy, Pearl lectures extensively in public schools, colleges, and church groups, sharing the Jackie Robinson message of hope wherever he goes. When asked about Barack Obama’s like-minded message and whether he believes Obama will become the first African-American president, Pearl hedged his bets, saying, “Obama realizes the importance of hope and that has inspired many people. Whether he wins or loses, he has already affected all of us, and he has changed this country forever in a positive way.”
This week, Pearl will be busy sprinkling the seeds of hope in lectures at the Bronx Botanical Gardens and a personal appearance at the Angelika with the filmmakers before a screening of “A Man Named Pearl.” For more information, visit