A man named Pearl who shapes trees

Savannah Morning News

Dec. 27, 2015

There’s a man in Bishopville, S.C. who breaks all the rules. He’s an artist with no training. He’s a sculptor who chops up yews, saws around hollies and clips up privet. He’s a late-bloomer, an outsider. He’s a visionary, an absurdist, a surrealist who has transformed the three acres surrounding his ordinary redbrick ranch home on an ordinary dead-end street into a dreamland, a moonscape, a garden fit for the Jetsons. It could be an English garden of angles and clean lines except none of what he creates makes any sense. There is no balance. The lines go this way and that way. Out of the towering trees, there are geometric shapes, animal facsimiles (could that be two bears hugging?) and sudden holes. Lots of holes. There is negative space.

After 40 years of working his magic in what was once a cornfield, this generous, gregarious, community minded man has attracted enough attention and money to be able to form a nonprofit organization that hands out scholarships but only to students with “C” averages.

He’s a Will Allen of gardening, a Howard Finster of junk sculptures, a peace and love kind of guy who helped desegregate the lunch counters in Durham, N.C., where he was majoring in mathematics and chemistry at North Carolina College (anything to escape the sharecropping farm life of his family, he once said).

He’s Pearl Fryer and he’s just as accessible as the cook behind the counter at the local Bishopville Waffle House on Main Street, where he takes his breakfast every day and where one of his twisty, loopy, circular plant sculptures stands. He’s as passionate with the kids he talks to as he is about his pruning. Lead with your strength, he tells us he tells them. Be patient. Find what you’re good at. And when you get successful, he says, take someone with you from the bottom. Make a difference.

You can’t miss his garden. Somewhere past a stretch of the Althea Gibson Highway (good to see the name of the late great African American tennis player in print), past the John Deere outlet which also has one of his whirly gig creations (maybe it was a loblolly pine or a compacted holly), not far from Harry & Harry Too’s restaurant (closed on Saturday), you’ll see a small sign with yet another of his otherworldly pieces of art pointing to his house.

There’s no fee to visit his garden (contributions are welcome). There’s no uniformity to the 500 plants of his fertile imagination. Many would call what he does topiary but Fryar doesn’t use armatures or wire cages. He doesn’t water or fertilize. He just trims and trims until the surface is tight, not unlike what Astro turf looks like or a finely cut putting green. Fryar didn’t know anything about topiaries when he visited a nursery some 40 years ago and asked someone how to shape a plant. It looked interesting, he thought, followed by, “I’d like to do that.”

“Three minutes,” Fryar told us last week. “That’s how long the man talked before he gave me a few plants out of the compost pile. It’s a good thing too. If I would have had a horticulture background or known any more I would not have been able to do this.”

Fryar, 76, went to college, moved up North, served in the military, got a job with a can manufacturing company and married his high school sweetheart who worked in a sunglass factory. When the company built a new plant in Bishopville he and his family transferred south, albeit with a union wage and a union salary. After working 12-hour shifts, Fryar would come home, set up his 30-foot ladders and “cut his bushes” late into the night. That’s how he likes to describe what he does: “In the final analysis that’s what I do, I cut my bushes.” He had one immediate goal: “to win Yard of the Month.”

One thing is for sure, he told us, “I was not going to do what anyone else was doing.”

Now he’s the subject of a movie, “A Man Named Pearl.” He talks about the creative process at local colleges. His touch is everywhere, including four-foot words cut into his yard: peace, love, good will and the numbers of his address, 165, cut in front of his house. Then there are Fryar’s neighbors on his street. They couldn’t help themselves. They started cutting up their own bushes. Fryer doesn’t mind. “ They do it themselves,” he says. “Fine with me.”

Everyone in town seems to know him. At Watford’s restaurant, where peacock feathers top the Christmas tree the waitress (who has a farm with peacocks, hedgehogs and ratites), sells 2016 Fryar calendars.

“Tell him I sold you two,” she says when we leave.





Time to take a deep breath

Savannah Morning News

Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015

On many fronts and in many ways I think it’s a good time to take a deep breath, peel a grapefruit and write someone a letter. You can wear red if you wish (for the holiday), find something that goes well with applesauce and sour cream (leftovers from Chanukah) for lunch, and substitute an orange for the grapefruit (if you are taking statins, which, like Steve Jobs and the rest of the Macintosh family, do not play well with grapefruit, or so I’m told).

December is a challenging month. It’s a pressure month. It’s a month of shouldas (forget the wouldas and the couldas; it’s too late for them). We should be sending out greeting cards (some of us find last year’s forgotten cards deep in a drawer waiting for the stamp we couldn’t find right then). We should be looking for last year’s wrapping paper (why buy more than we know we have some, somewhere). We should be making those lists (favorite movies, favorite books, favorite moments) as a way to sum up the year. December is the period at the end of the sentence. It’s the terminus for the year, the denouement. Or so we are pressured to think. A few days into January we come to our senses: there is life after December although right about now that’s kind of hard to remember.

It’s all too much, especially if we’re worried about all those aerial drones people will be getting for Christmas (not to mention the Pentagon’s 7,000 military drones, the new primary weapon to counter terrorism) or the opportunistic thieves who seem to be drones of their own roaming the neighborhood looking for a bargain.

It’s a month of illness: all that close contact with people, all those dropping leaves and needles, all this crazy, topsy-turvy, upside-down weather. Should I even bother bringing my tall, ungainly and cold adverse frangipani inside when I know it could be enjoying all this sunshine? Should I be tossing ice cubes on the cold-loving kale to simulate winter and block plant disease? What’s going to happen to my garlic, which is popping out of the ground as if it were March? None of it bodes well.

It’s a month of begging, unbecoming letters from nonprofits, all those organizations we contributed to ONCE and are now sending missives of desperation, all the more reason to give cash and forget the deduction business. I’m only serious here.

To make matters worse, fear, at least this December, this year, this election cycle, seems to be the most visited subject of our voluminous media platforms (to use a new word of the day). But is all this craziness something new – something we should truly be afraid of – or is it just the way of the world when you factor in egomaniacal human beings? Is all this mishagas simply a factor of our 24-hour news cycle and/or the omnipresent Internet or have these cuckoo madmen been around forever and ever and we just didn’t know about them?

I’m quite certain people of the fifth century did not keep up with the marauding and devastating battles of Attila the Hun as he made his way through Central and Eastern Europe. I’m equally certain no one in the 12th century sat down to dinner or nursed a few cocktails while talking about the ongoing brutal military conquests of Genghis Khan            Take a deep breath, ride the bike you got for Chanukah, visit a friend who can’t be riding a bike this year, take a walk at night (it’s quite jolly, especially when a flock of Fleet Feet walkers approach all lit up head to toe as if to compete with lights in the windows of neighbors and in some cases on the roof), celebrate the winter solstice, cook your collards, eat less sugar, and read a book. Life – in December and the rest of the year – will go on.