One man’s unusual canvas

Cornelius Arts Center hosts topiary exhibit

by Lynn Roberson

Pearl Fryar’s work with abstract topiary art is on display in the Cornelius Arts Center through Feb. 25.

For Pearl Fryar, gardening is more than just a hobby.

“I wanted to create a garden with a message,” Fryar said. “After you visit my garden, if you don’t feel a little bit different than when you started, you missed me.”

Fryar’s exhibit, “The Dream of Pearl Fryar,” showcases the internationally acclaimed artist’s abstract topiary art and “junk art” sculptures.

His message is one of hope, perseverance and belief, he said. He has created whimsical topiary displays in his 3-acre garden at the home where he and wife, Metra, have lived in Bishopville, S.C., since the early 1980s.

Fryar started the garden in the hopes of winning “Yard of the Month,” but now has expanded his mission to spreading the word about the importance of believing in others’ potential – not just those who excel in academics or athletics.

Fryar rescued many of the plants from compost piles at local nurseries and transformed them into abstract shapes, with plants towering 20 or 30 feet in the air and taking their form over several years. For decades, he worked at night, following 12-hour shifts at the soda can factory.

His sculptures and fountains created from scrap metal often contain the words “peace” and “love.” He is especially proud of one piece entitled “Hate Hurts.” As visitors leave the garden, the last thing they see are 8-foot letters cut into the ground. The letters spell out “Love, Peace + Goodwill.”

Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, Inc. contributes to scholarship funds at Central Carolina Technical College in Bishopville, S.C., and at Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill, S.C. The scholarships benefit students who might not have done well in high school but who show potential.

“Education is about one thing: developing what you have,” Fryar said. “Whatever you were born with from an ability point of view, you cannot change that. But you can vary the environment.”

He encourages students – and even the attendees at the reception – to consider the company they keep. “Look around you. If you are the smartest person in your circle, you need a new circle.”

Fryar was always artistically inclined, but he said he was 40 before he could afford to indulge his talent. Since then, his garden has been featured on the PBS Victory Garden, in a documentary called “A Man Named Pearl,” and in a New York Times article, among others. One design became part of the permanent collection at the South Carolina State Museum.

“My process really is no different than a person who paints,” Fryar said. “My garden was my canvas. Once I decide the image I want to create, I prune the plant to create that image. My style is abstract, free-form, with a structural form.”

Susannah and Ian Bertolina first met Fryar in the late 1980s when they searched out the garden on a trip home to Charlotte from Charleston.

“When we drove up, it was raining, and Pearl was on a ladder, and not one of those small ladders either,” Ian Bertolina said. They have seen his drive and dedication continue through the years and they note the continual evolving of his art.

“It just takes your breath away,” Susannah Bertolina said.

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