Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Man Named Pearl

Posted By on Wed, Jun 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson's warm, big-hearted documentary opens with Pearl Fryar working on his topiary garden to the strains of Fred Story's resolutely old-school jazz score. This gives the initial impression of an elite environment, one accessible only to the few able to appreciate its rarefied pleasures. But once the man named Pearl begins to tell his tale, all that melts away.

Just as jazz was once the popular music of all walks of American life, Fryar makes the case that gardening isn't solely the bastion of the wealthy. With a boundless energy that belies his age (he's now 68), this blue-collar, self-taught artist has created a three-acre topiary garden so extraordinary that its presence has put the small town of Bishopville, S.C., on the map.

"Horticulture people," explains Fryar while driving his pick-up truck, "come to my garden and the first thing they say is, 'You shouldn't be able to do that.' And I would say to them, 'I didn't know that.' The one time in my life ignorance paid off."

The acknowledgement that he possessed more enthusiasm than experience is punctuated by a hearty laugh that goes a long way toward explaining Fryar's accomplishments. (His wife of 40 years, Metra, shares that same easy humor and unflappable optimism.) The son of sharecroppers who passed on their work ethic and unwavering religious faith, Pearl was looking to buy his first house when the casual racism of a potential neighbor — "black people don't keep up their yards" — inspired him to transform his outdoor property into something spectacular.

So began a 30-year commitment to an evergreen sanctuary where the words "Peace Love & Goodwill" welcome visitors from around the world — all in his own back yard. The ability to coax plants other gardeners have left for dead into living abstract sculpture — a live oak forms a crisp, perfect box, a Leyland cypress morphs into a massive, fishbone-topped totem — takes patience, determination and what his friends and admirers deem Fryar's special skill: the ability to visualize future growth and act accordingly.

Some biographical details that were left out of this love-fest (as a college student, Fryar participated in civil rights sit-ins, he was also a Korean War veteran and union organizer) demonstrate the tough tenacity of this soft-spoken, welcoming man. With effusive praise for Fryar's DIY aesthetic and his selfless nature, the filmmakers give a big, green thumbs up to Pearl's earthly paradise.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, June 13, and 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday, June 15. Call 313-833-3237.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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