The Angelika was privileged to speak with Pearl Fryar, the gifted topiary artist and humanitarian featured in the upcoming documentary A MAN NAMED PEARL, about his work, (both artistically and charitably), his background and why he decided to be a part of this film. Mr. Fryar stepped away from his garden in hopes to promote his message, his film, and his scholarship foundation, and our interview with him is below.
Q: What did you think when the directors first came to you and asked to make a movie about you and your garden?
A: The movie came about because of a television show I did – the viewing audience was to vote on the best garden out of 4, mine being one of them. I didnâ??t think I even had a chance and I didnâ??t even vote for myself â?? but I won by 54%. So then they presented me with the blue ribbon as a part of another TV show, and they told me “we canâ??t tell the story in 5 minutes so weâ??d like to do a movie.” And I said, “no way”, because I didnâ??t think I have enough to do a movie about it. But they kept on, so finally I agreed because they said they had to raise the funds for the movie, and I didnâ??t think theyâ??d do itâ?¦but they did and thatâ??s how the movie came about.
Q: What did your family think? Were they excited for you?
A: Well quite naturally everyone was excited! I mean what are they odds of a person living in Bishopville, SC – approximately 20,000 people in the whole county – and theyâ??re going to come in and make about movie about somebody in Lee County, SCâ?¦ everybody was up in arms about it.
Q: What was it like once the filmmakers and the cameras â??invadedâ? your small townâ?¦ how did the people in the town and the county react?
A: Everyone was excited â?? youâ??re talking about Bishopville, SC getting some attention â?? and usually anything of that size is an event here, so we just had all kinds of things going on here while the movie was being made. People were very cordial, they would just welcome everybody here, they were just great.
Q: You seem so genuinely good-natured, and you let so many people into your topiary garden everyday for free-you were very adamant about making sure that nobody has to pay to see it unless they can afford it or want to donate â?? do you ever get sick of having people visit and having to show them around?
A: Oh no, some days I have over 200 people visit me. And see, one of the ideas of the garden was to do something from a creative point of view. I work with students and one of the things we make a mistake with is that we judge everybody from an academic point of view and not everyone is gifted academically. If you are an average student, you may be gifted in another area thatâ??s comparable to the person thatâ??s gifted academically. If youâ??re a C-student and very creative then you are on your own, and I wanted to bring attention to that problem, because I wanted those kids who came from that kind of [disadvantaged] background or environment to have encouragement -and that is the reason that the movie was made.
Q: Are those kinds of kids one of the reasons you started the garden in the first place?
A: Yeah that was the idea of the garden because it was like a hobby. There was 2 things I wanted to accomplish with the garden â?? I wanted to create a garden that when you walked through it, there was a message within the garden â?? you walk away with a message. Something youâ??ll remember about this garden or something that you saw in the garden. The other thing is that I wanted to create a garden that you could walk through, and once you walked away, you couldnâ??t copy anything in the garden! Those were my two main objectives. So, because of that, and because I used my creativity to create the garden, there is a uniqueness in the garden, because itâ??s just totally different. I knew nothing about horticulture, nothing about what you should or shouldnâ??t do from that point of view, and I just did what I had a gift to do â?? and be creative. And I took the plants and I made them do what I wanted them to do and that was it.
Q: The so-called horticulture â??expertsâ? are totally amazed and blown away by what youâ??ve been able to do with plantsâ?? they say in the film that they have no idea how youâ??ve managed to create such incredible topiaries – there is no horticultural explanation. Do you know how you do it, or is it just a natural instinct?
A: Itâ??s not any different from any other artist â?? in other words, if youâ??re a creative person then you work from that point of view. You have to think about â?? itâ??s no different if I had been a painter â?? but it just so happened that I used plant material or scrap metal to create the images that I can imagine, and if you said to me put it on paper and then do it, I canâ??t do it. But I can imagine an image, and work toward accomplishing it â?? sometimes it will take me 7 years â?? but I just have the natural ability to do it. And so Iâ??m hoping that when you walk away from the movie, you walk away with the idea that everyone is not just gifted academically â?? it can be creatively or in other areas, and maybe we should focus on those kids that weâ??re allowing to fall through the cracks because theyâ??re not academic â?? they fall through the cracks and become a problem.
Q: How do you think you were able to escape falling through the cracks and make such a success of your creative talent?
A: I did come from a strong family â?? my family was very important to me. They didnâ??t have a lot- they were all poor from a material or financial point of view, but they always encouraged me to do and accomplish more than they did, because they thought I would have a better opportunity. But what really gave me that hope was in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke into the majors. I was one of those kids that was growing up in North Carolina and it was farming that was the main occupation, and occasionally you saw kids go off to college or whatever, but when Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, I thought at first, baseball was going to be my way out. I was a pretty good baseball player and all my friends were too, but we didnâ??t have the scholarships we have now [to go through with it]. But when I saw what Jackie Robinson could actually accomplish with his natural ability â?? even though I never played one day of baseball, I’m where I am today basically because Jackie Robinson was that person that took me to that next level. And if you have the ability to work, I found that you may not be able to afford your talent, but you just get out and you work so hard until people come along and they will feel sorry for you and they will just help you.
Q: Good plan!
A: Iâ??m serious! Thereâ??s no way I could afford what you see in this movie, but people come through. I have a donation box and Iâ??m telling you, people are very generous. Itâ??s not that you have to pay – it was other people that made me put the box up. One lady came by one day and she basically said â??Iâ??m not gonna leave until you put a box up so people can donate, because that makes people feel better about walking through this garden.â? And so when people see you are sincere about what you do, then people will help you.
Q: And you really come across as such a sincere and genuine man â?? do you think that has helped people want to fund your garden?
A: I think that could be it but then also, youâ??re seeing this story being told by a person that came from [a less fortunate] background â?? I am speaking from experience. I was one of those kids that wasnâ??t supposed to make it. If you had walked into my graduating class and said to us, “At some point in your lifetime, thereâ??s going to be a movie made about one of you”, I promise you it would not have been me. So the point is that, and I made this statement in the movie, you never ever allow obstacles to determine where you go in life â?? have dreams, at least try to accomplish some of your dreams. Sometimes we wait for things to fall in our laps but thatâ??s not going to happen â?? if you have the talent and you donâ??t use it then you lose it. You look at success â?? itâ??s not determined by your SAT score. Success is determined by the amount of work you put into what you do well. If youâ??re not willing to work then youâ??re not going to be successful. You can be an average student and really apply yourself and really work hard and at some point, you will be successful at what youâ??re doing. You donâ??t have to be president of the United States â?? the idea that you can make a good living and support your family â?? that is success. In the final analysis, you can see that the message in my garden is LOVE, PEACE AND GOODWILL. If thatâ??s not what life is about, then you’re going to always have an empty void in your life, because the love is that you care, you have peace within yourself, and goodwill is the ability to help others less fortunate than you are. And in the final days, if you have done that, you will feel good about what you have accomplished in life.
Q: Has your life changed at all since the movie, or are you the same Pearl out in the garden?
A: Iâ??m really the same person, except Iâ??m a little more excited, because I can see the difference that the movie has made, because now we have created a foundation to preserve the garden. The Garden Conservancy out of New York- they preserve unusual gardens â?? they just voted to take it on as 1 of the 17 gardens that are under preservation. We have a foundation and people donate to the foundation for the preservation of this garden, but within the bylaws of the foundation, this garden has to give scholarships to C-students, and that is the primary goal of this garden. If I can go back and change the lives of people that feel they donâ??t have a chance â?? for kids who donâ??t plan to go to college – I want to go in and help. We have a satellite here university here, Central Carolina. It costs about $1500 a year to attend this University, and you get an Associate’s Degree. And we also are trying to create a safety net, tutoring and whatnot, and once you get that Associateâ??s Degree, we want to see that you get into a major university and get a B.A. or B.S. degree. Now these are the kids that would ordinarily fall through the cracks and once you save those kids, then they become a tax payer instead of a tax burden.
Itâ??s very simple â?? but itâ??s being told through the eyes of an average person and someone who has been in that environment.
I would also like to say that if this movie is halfway successful, then some of the proceeds from this movie will go back into the foundation to preserve the garden and support the scholarship â?? thatâ??s the real reason I agreed to make this movie.
Please don’t miss A MAN NAMED PEARL at the Angelika – the film opens Friday, July 18th in New York and Friday, August 22nd in Houston and Dallas.