Jacquelin Cangro, author of The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York, is a blogging, dog-walking, fifth-floor-walk-up stair jogging machine. She shares tidbits of her city life, favorite new things to see, read, taste and hear, and even started the brilliant SHINE Series highlighting good people doing good things. All of this is to say that she should be too busy to be here. Lucky for us she’s also a master multi-tasker.
Today she shares a unique Tiny Spark, a story she latched onto while watching a gardening show. A happy accident since she doesn’t garden, but as you’ll hear today, a man named Pearl sure does.
A few years ago, I was watching a gardening television show. (Why? I don’t have a garden.) I saw a clip about Pearl Fryar, a self-taught topiary artist. I felt a strange connection to Pearl, even though we have little in common on the surface. He’s a black man in his late 60s in a rural Southern town who creates living sculptures from plants in his backyard. I was captivated because I sensed the honesty in his art. What I mean is, there is a passion and commitment to his garden that precedes almost everything else. One might say it’s a calling. And by answering that calling with no expectations of accolades or money, he has brought joy to himself, to his community and to thousands of visitors.
Pearl Fryar lives in an average house in an average neighborhood in Bishopville, South Carolina. But it is his yard that people come from all over the world to see. He single-handedly created a garden oasis of topiaries. It all started with one throwaway plant he found in a compost pile at a local nursery. Now he has more than 300 living sculptures.
Topiary is not a hobby for people who prefer instant gratification. Most plants take years to train into the desired shape, usually an animal or geometric figure, though Pearl is partial to abstract forms. To turn a mushroom-shaped tree into a square one, Pearl worked for four to five years. “It’s a matter of perfecting it until I’m really comfortable with it,” he says. He never uses forms or wire cages to assist in molding the tree. His work is all freehand, but he goes in with a vision. “It wasn’t important to me to create a garden,” Pearl says. “I wanted to create a feeling that when you walk through, you feel differently than you did when you started.”
The garden is a meditation of sorts for Pearl and for visitors. Some people have made multiple return trips to commune with the topiaries because “you can feel a spirit within the garden,” or because they get “a calm feeling,” or because they “feel love.” Maybe they are sensing the message that Pearl has inscribed into the lawn: “Love, Peace and Goodwill,” the inspiration behind the entire garden. Now in his late 60s, Pearl’s passion has remained strong. Charles Holmes, an arborist, says, “Pearl spends so much time in the garden, he has an almost mystical communion with his plants. He talks with them—he’s almost like a plant whisperer.”
Pearl has become something of a local celebrity in Bishopville (population 3,600). Tour buses carrying church groups and youth campers show up regularly. He never turns away any of them and never charges anyone to tour his yard. He has a donation box near the mailbox for people who can afford it. “For people who can’t afford it, they are as welcome as someone who put in $100. Sometimes the very people who can’t afford it are the ones who most need to come,” he says.
In every cone-shaped shrub, every spiraling pine, every square dogwood is the message Pearl is trying to communicate. “There are always going to be obstacles. The thing about it is, you need to be strong enough so you don’t let those obstacles determine where you go in life.”
What personal strengths have you found through adversity?
Upcoming Tiny Spark:
Friday, January 18th