Late in the delightful documentary A Man Named Pearl, the film’s subject, Pearl Fryar, addresses the issue of having a “girl’s name,” musing over whether or not having a different kind of name played a role in the path he took in life. Would he have done the things he has if he’d been named John? While it’s impossible to say, he’s quite right in believing that when people meet a black man named Pearl who creates the most incredible topiary sculptures this side of Edward Scissorhands they’re going to remember his name. Even if they didn’t, they’d remember Pearl Fryar’s garden.
The garden in question is a three-acre patch next to Fryar’s house in a suburban neighborhood in Bishopville, S.C. And truth to tell, it’s not so much a garden as it is a little patch of self-contained magic. It more or less started when Pearl and his wife, Metra, moved to Bishopville and were house hunting. One of the houses they looked at was in a neighborhood where they wouldn’t have been entirely welcome (in other words, they were the wrong color), and part of the stereotypical argument against having them in that neighborhood was that they “wouldn’t keep up the yard.” Pearl and Metra took the house, and Pearl decided not only to keep up the yard, but he set out to win the local garden club’s “yard of the month,” which he did.
But that wasn’t enough for Pearl. He wanted to create something special, something wonderful. Working in part from discarded plants from the city nursery, he began crafting what is now an amazing topiary garden—a garden that in many ways baffles horticultural experts. There are plants in his garden that shouldn’t be growing that far south. There are plants in his garden that have been trained and cut into fantasticated shapes—plants that don’t, as a rule, lend themselves to this treatment. How? Well, as is often the case, the man did this by simply not knowing that he “couldn’t” do it. As Pearl puts it, “One time in my life, ignorance paid off.”
Of course, the film is about more than the garden. It’s about the man behind it and the community he inhabits. It’s also about the reaction to that garden, its impact on the neighborhood (which is beginning to actually look like the street in Edward Scissorhands), the town and the gardening and art world. What began life as a kind of backyard (or side yard) hobby has taken on international significance.
The comparison to Edward Scissorhands is inevitable (the documentary addresses it, in fact), but Pearl’s garden differs in two ways. First of all, it’s real, not movie magic. (“I could do the shapes that Edward Scissorhands did in that movie, but it’d take me 10 or 15 years to do,” Pearl states.) But more, his shapes are less representational than those in the film. They’re more abstract and fanciful—often looking a bit like Henry Moore sculptures made out of plants. At the same time, if you look closely, you’ll catch glimpses of whimsical animals cropping up here and there, giving the garden a charmingly eclectic sense.
As filmmaking, A Man Called Pearl is fairly straightforward. There are no cinematic fireworks here, but that’s not a bad thing. The film is as unassuming and charming—and inspirational—as Pearl Fryar himself. It’s not just about topiary—though it’s likely to make you want to go out into the yard and start sculpting your shrubbery, or at least drive to Bishopville and see the garden firsthand. The film is about possibilities, and how we’re only hemmed in by the limits we set for ourselves. Go spend 77 minutes with Pearl Fryar and his garden. You’ll feel better for it.