jubilat Interview

At sixty-six, Pearl Fryar of Bishopville, South Carolina (population 3,670), is one of the nation's leading topiary sculptors and folk artists (neither of these terms do him justice). His work has been displayed at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. It has been featured on the Discovery Channel, HGTV, PBS, and the Sunday Morning show on CBS; in 2006, a documentary about his life and art will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. That's all to say his stature in the worlds of gardening and Outsider Art has grown rapidly since he first premiered his work in the South Carolina State Museum's exhibition for self-taught artists in 1997. But we're talking about topiaries—things that grow and grow slowly. For years before that first show, Pearl had been planting shrubs and bushes, and directing the tiny trunks and branches with pantyhose, coat hangers, and PVC pipes, often working past midnight after a twelve-hour shift at his job. Pearl says his family and neighbors were initially concerned for his sanity, but as news of his work spread strangers began to appear—gardeners, art teachers and their students, and museum curators. These days visitors from around the world drop by to tour Pearl's three-acre mutant landscape of intertwined pine trees, bulbous evergreens, and spiraling yews for free. His 150 topiaries, which range from five to thirty feet tall, are shaped in the spirit of Picasso as well as Dr. Seuss, both whimsical and distinctly nonrepresentational. His work has brought attention not only to his block (where his neighbors have cut up their shrubs to attract tourists), but also to Bishopville and its Main Street, where several of his topiaries are on display.

A native of South Carolina and an alumnus of Coker College (where Pearl has been artist-in-residence for the last few years), I am little more than a tourist, if not an exile, arriving at his place for our interview with my family in tow. I left the state more than a decade ago, believing no African American artist could thrive in the South. As Pearl climbs down from his tractor, unmindful of the heat, I'm already dabbing my handkerchief to my brow and fumbling between a new digital recorder and an old tape recorder. My wife has headed off in one direction toward a twenty-foot fish-shaped fir; my five-year-old and two-year-old have gone in another, whispering near a strange-looking water fountain—one of the scrap metal sculptures Pearl calls his "junque art."

Because he's done a few dozen interviews over the last years, he delivers—almost automatically—the details of his background: his upbringing in Clinton, North Carolina; his retirement after thirty-six years as a maintenance engineer at Rexam Beverage Can Company; the three-minute shrub pruning lesson he received that took him from a simple desire to win Bishopville Yard of the Month twenty years ago into the lecture halls of Harvard art professors. Being a novice interviewer, I'm initially grateful for the details. In truth, though, most of his responses are made to fit into the well-worn narrative of the folk artist. He's not an easy interview. And, in fact, I don't want to interview him—I want to have a conversation. I tell him how my own father was a chemical warfare specialist in the army, just as he was. I talk about how I try to get my poetry students to see art as a lifestyle, not a career. I try to get him to notice what a "good" dad I am with my children by interrupting him to say, "You all okay?" and "What you got there?" And with each such comment, Pearl nods politely before continuing his prepackaged spiel—most of which I won't include here. But he has his surprising moments as well. Pearl will say off-handedly of his work, "They call it art . . . basically, I just cut up plants," and moments later talk of how he occasionally watches tourists walking through the garden and then, when they're long gone, retraces their exact route trying to see what they saw.

You can find Pearl's biography (and some great images of his work) on his Web site at www.fryarstopiaries.com; you'll also find it in the forthcoming documentary about his life and work. What follows are snatches of our conversation "beneath" the interview­—the paradoxes and mysteries that come up.

Do you think of yourself as a gardener or an artist?

I fall under the category of what they call a self-taught artist. Horticulturalists are constantly saying I shouldn't be able to do this. I'm doing it because I don't know the rules. I do what I want to do according to the way I feel.

Why do you think people respond to the fact that you had "no training"?

Anything you see in a book, someone else has gotten credit for. You're never going to get credit for doing what's in a book, only for what you do a cut above that. That's when the real person comes out.

But talent doesn't necessarily translate into art—one can be talented at a hobby. Back then, were you thinking of your work as a "hobby" or as "art"?

Even today I don't accept it as art—I tell people it's just being creative. Sounds like you're talking about art that is rooted in instinct or intuition. But you're teaching students now. How do you teach something like intuition? Once you get them started, they'll quickly develop their own style and technique. My job is to get kids to understand: you determine you own destiny. Whether you're an A student or D student, you don't back off. You can be gifted in other areas. Testing doesn't measure everything; it doesn't measure the total individual. It's not about SAT scores, it's about what you do well and are willing to work for. You get paid for the amount of work you put into a thing, I don't care what it is. When I was a kid, my family couldn't afford toys. So we made our own toys, and that was being creative. Now I use that same creativeness, and people are paying me for it!

There is a notion of the folk artist as an artist who doesn't care about dollars or professionalism, but you're talking to me about economics, right?

Sometimes we have talent we can't afford. You can be a gifted person, but at some point no matter what you do it becomes economics. Once I came to Bishopville, I had so many years on my job that I was pretty well set for life. Artistically, I knew what I wanted and where I wanted to go, and I had the extra money to put into the plants and equipment in order to get it where it could support itself.

Once you realized the level of recognition, how did your work change?

You know what almost happened to me? This fellow came in and he says, "This is better than Europe." He goes back to Europe and he sends me books, and I almost dropped what I was doing when I saw what they were doing. I almost started doing it, but then I said, "Wait a minute: why should I copy when I'm original?" I put the book down and went back to doing what I do.

Are there other artists you find interesting?

Picasso had a traveling exhibit in Atlanta, and Polly [Polly Laffitte, curator of the South Carolina State Museum] arranged through the museum to get me tickets—I had friends begging for tickets. I got to see Picasso's work, and it was fascinating. You take art appreciation and know Picasso was a painter, but I was surprised to find out he was also a sculptor. Picasso had one piece that looked like a pig. If it was in the streets I wouldn't even stop to pick it up, but once you say Picasso did it . . . and he had one piece that was nothing but a square and rods. That's all it was!

Is that how you started making your junque art?

For a couple of years afterwards, I thought about the fact that it takes the same creativity to make something with plants as it does to create those metal pieces. I went to the Whitney Museum of Art and saw this piece on the fourth floor—I call it junk art. It was nothing but a rod with a loop that came up—it was a straight rod, and the piece revolved. And when the loop would get to the rod it leaned over and then stood up. It's nothing but a cam—a cam has got a lobe on it, right? You can time that cam so that when the lobe gets to the rod, it will push it over. I've mentioned Picasso when trying to describe your work to people. Some of the pieces look like cubist sculptures.

I go with my imagination. This piece with the ribs I call my fishbone. This one I call my skeleton look. Flowing lines and curves give you an abstract shape.

Most of them are evergreens, right?

Yeah. I like evergreens because they give you something year-round—that's why this place is such a tourist attraction. In the wintertime everything else is dead, and here you got all the colors and shapes and lines and curves. Also, my background is mathematics. I took creativeness and math. The greatest building in the world starts with a line and a curve. What about the plants with the flower pots and these metal pieces? This woman brought her daughter, who is in the eighth grade, over to my place. I showed them a little piece I call my pothead—a pot I made into a chime. I told the daughter it's for people that talk a lot but are emptyheaded. Then I said, "You go to school and get an education and eliminate this noise." Three days later, she was back with her friends, and she said, "I want to tell my friends the same thing you told me about this pot." And it's just something simple—a ball pot with a face hanging out of it.

Do you work with sketches?

No, no—I can't work from paper; I don't write anything down. Once you put it on paper the dimension is there—someone else can do it. If someone comes to me and wants me to do something on paper, I don't want to be bothered with it.

So you're not interested in having people imitate your work? You want them to come to you for your ideas, not your formula?

A lot of ideas were stolen. African American art is now accepted as mainstream art, but at one time it was considered outside art. If it was done by a black artist, it had no value. Now we have become mainstream artists—that's why you find so many self-taught artists working.

I can see how that would be very liberating. You're doing what you've always done—except now people are interested in it, intrigued by it.

I was invited to Rock Hill with some other artists. They took all the artists to a Goodwill store and told us we had to make an art piece out of a hat we bought there. I bought a lamp shade, a little green Christmas tree, and some ivy. I spent four dollars. I cut the Christmas tree into topiaries and wired it to the top of the lampshade, and I wrapped holly around it. Then I took a business card—I needed to know the front from the back—and wrote "A Touch of Class" on it. That night each artist had to wear their piece because it was going to be bid on. This lady saw my hat and said, "I want to model it." I said, "Sure," because I didn't want to do it. She walks by her husband and says, "Buy it." They got to bidding, and it sold for something like ninety-five dollars. We became good friends—she's an art collector. Later she took me to her house, and it's the first thing you see when you walk in her house! She went out and bought this fancy stand and covered it beautifully.

It makes sense that you're moving into other media. You helped people see that a bush can be more than a bush, just as you showed that woman how a lampshade is more than a lampshade. People want to see the world differently, and your art—all art—gives them a way to do it.

What gets me is a lady who saw the show on me on CBS. When my wife and I come back from church, we always go to the Waffle House—I did a piece for them, and now they let me eat for free. We walk in just as a waitress was explaining to this lady from Florence how to get to my house, and the waitress says: "Here's the guy!" The lady grabs my hand and starts crying. I don't know what to say, but I sit there and talk to her—I'm talking about tears, man. She says, "It was just such an inspiration," and she's just going and going and I say, "Well, we're gonna sit down and have a cup of coffee." She says, "I'm going on to your place, and I'll be there when you get there." I couldn't believe the way she felt, the way she made me feel. She had such appreciation for what I do. That's what makes me do what I do.