Pearl Fryar’s Garden
Martha Dabbs Greenway
The first time I visited Pearl Fryar’s garden is a story in itself. It was in early spring when my friend Myra and I decided to drive the twenty-five miles from Sumter, South Carolina, over to Bishopville. I wanted to find this fabulous topiary garden I had read about so when we got to Bishopville, she pulled into the Exxon station to ask directions.
“Excuse me,” I yelled out the window to the man pumping gas. “Do you know how I’d find Pearl Fryar’s garden?”
“Yes, ma’am, I do,” he said with a smile. “He’s my neighbor.”
Bishopville’s population is under 4,000, but even I didn’t expect the man putting gas into his car to be Pearl Fryar’s neighbor! We easily found the incredible topiary garden on Broad Acres Road and, yes, it is fabulous, but we will get to that story in moment. As we were leaving town, I spotted a van, literally covered in cameras, parked beside the Welcome to Bishopville sign. Excited, I asked Myra to pull over. I hopped out and approached the young driver of the van.
“Y’all not from around here, are you?” I asked.
“No, we’re from California.” He introduced himself as Harrod Blank, a filmmaker and photographer from Berkeley. “We’re here to film the Button Man.”
I had met Dalton Stevens, known locally as the Button King, at the Sumter County Fair. Legend has it Dalton couldn’t sleep one night so he decided to sew some buttons onto his clothes. Before he knew it, he had completely covered his jacket, trousers, and hat with buttons, and went on to cover a coffin, a Chevrolet Chevette and even a toilet with buttons as well.
“Well, you also need to talk to Pearl Fryar, the Plant Man,” I said. The Camera Van, the Button King, the Plant Man—all in one afternoon in Bishopville. The Button King showed up in Blank’s film, Automorphosis; I showed up in Pearl Fryar’s garden dozens more times, often with Southern Sampler friends in tow.
The first time I remember actually meeting Pearl was the winter of 2002. I worked for the Sumter County Cultural Commission and we were sponsoring a visual arts exhibition called “Out of Necessity: Art Driven by the Soul.” It featured paintings and sculptures created by artists using “the means available” to communicate and express feelings, dreams, and concepts. In Pearl’s case it meant creating a magical topiary garden with shrubs discarded by the local plant nursery. His mathematical mind led him to trim those plants to within an inch of their life into geometric shapes— beautiful squares, boxes, triangles and pyramids.
Pearl didn’t stop with discarded greenery. He also created pieces of sculpture from bits and pieces of found metal objects, clay pots, or used printing plates from the soft drink canning company where he worked. One of the sculptures he brought for the exhibit had the words “Love and Unity” on one side and “Hate Hurts” on the other. I would learn through the years that this man who carved out “Love, Peace and Goodwill” in the grassy part of his garden really lived those philosophies.
A couple of years later during the Cultural Commission’s installation art exhibition called “Accessibility,” Pearl worked with hundreds of high school students to create a mosaic garden in a vacant space off Main Street in Sumter. For several years he was artist-in-residence with the art department of Coker College in nearby Hartsville. One of his large topiaries was transplanted to the grounds of the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia and smaller pieces of his sculpture are in their collection. Nationally and internationally known in gardening circles, he is a sought-after public speaker.
Pearl once told me that he didn’t know he was an artist until we invited him to be a part of “Out of Necessity” and told him he was one. Here is a man who could see fountains and sculptures in materials most people would discard and create amazing shapes out of shrubs and trees left to die and rarely, if ever, used in topiary. It’s a good thing somebody told him that what he was doing was art.
MARTHA DABBS GREENWAY, a seventh generation South Carolinian, resides at Dabbs Crossroads in a rambling country farm house built by her grandaddy. Co-founder of Southern Sampler Artists Colony and retired Director of the Sumter County Cultural Commission, Martha lives contentedly with her two cats, Sonoma and Rafael, rescued on the Northern California coast–and a third cat, an orange tabby named Salem, who showed up on her porch, while she was reading about an orange cat dropped off at a library in Iowa.