Gardener Delights

A cut above: Topiary artist Pearl Fryar of Bishopville, S.C., is the subject of the new documentary.
A cut above: Topiary artist Pearl Fryar of Bishopville, S.C., is the subject of the new documentary. (Shadow Distribution)
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By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 23, 2008

About 30 years ago, Pearl Fryar wanted to buy a house in Bishopville, S.C. Some locals were resistant: The son of sharecroppers, Fryar looked to them like the kind of guy who "wouldn't keep up his yard." He proved them wrong, the way Michelangelo proved he could paint a ceiling.

In "A Man Named Pearl," directors Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson paint -- no, "sculpt" would obviously be the better term -- a portrait of a man who is clearly a rustic genius. Call him the Picasso of the pruning shears. Self-taught at topiary (the barbering of trees and shrubbery into figurative art), he also has become the drawing card of his once-hesitant home town, where his admirers couldn't be more admiring. And his admirers couldn't be more admiring .

Great documentary film requires narrative the same way great fiction does. Despite the likability and modesty of Fryar himself ("If you told me you've never had an obstacle," he says, "I'd say, 'What planet are you from?' "), everything in "A Man Named Pearl" has already happened. Consequently, what we get is less of a story arc than a testimonial, albeit one with a good deal of insightful commentary about Fryar and the town around him. (Putting his finger on the advantage of tourists over residents, one town father says, "You don't have to educate 'em and you don't have to medicate 'em.")

What "Pearl" is about is the unpredictability/volatility of the artistic impulse, and how something accomplished simply for its own sake -- like the three acres' worth of hallucinatory trees and bushes power-trimmed around Fryar's yard -- can affect ordinary people so profoundly. About having toured Fryar's place, one visitor says, "You feel different than you did at the start." It's the mission statement of art itself.

Fryar worked 35 years for a can manufacturer, having transitioned through the steel-to-aluminum stages of the industry before segueing -- on the basis of one three-hour demonstration at a local nursery -- into what has become a nationally recognized career, as it were, in topiary.

Some of the better commentary in the film comes from Polly Laffitte, former curator of the South Carolina State Museum, which acquired a Fryar work for its collection. The museum had never acquired a living thing before, but then Fryar's work is not just about trimming yews into Mickey Mouse: His designs are often surreal, in the sense that they resemble the familiar-yet-twisted images in a Dali painting. What Fryar does with a shrub recalls what photographer Edward Weston did with something as mundane as a green pepper, reinterpreting it, re-imagining it and redefining it as a shape in space. That Fryar deserves a place among these other innovative artists is the movie's boldest statement and -- given what we see around the Fryar house -- one it makes rather convincingly.

A Man Named Pearl (77 minutes, at the Avalon Theatre) is rated G and contains nothing offensive.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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