The documentary profile A Man Named Pearl is one of those hidden treasures of the art house that it’s your duty to seek out. Reminiscent of Rivers and Tides, this film by Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson is a portrait of an artist who works in an ephemeral natural medium. 66-year-old Pearl Fryar is a self-taught topiary gardener in economically depressed Bishopville, South Carolina. Over the years, word got out on his amazing garden; now he’s not only the undisputed center of every strategy by the Bishopville Chamber of Commerce, but he’s also internationally recognized for his work.
The film is as much about the extraordinary man as his work: a devoted churchgoer, a college lecturer in local art classes, and a good husband. As the African-American son of a sharecropper, Fryar proudly endured through racist times to his current success, which was at least in part inspired by pride. When first seeking a home in Bishopville, the Fryar's real estate agent was waved away from one neighborhood with the explanation, "Black people don't keep up their yards."
An artist waiting to get out, Fryar says he would have found his way to his passion regardless of a skeptical community. Still, having something to prove undeniably helped him get started. When he did in the mid-'80s, he set his eyes on the prize of the local garden club's "Yard of the Month" award, which he duly collected. The filmmakers plainly present the facts of Fryar's life, goosing it only with a lively original jazz score by Fred Story. Mostly we see Fryar at work and hear testimonials. His wife sees "man relating to nature." Museum curator Polly Laffitte sees "the eye of a sculptor and the mind of one." Arborists are at a loss to explain how Fryar does what he does, achieving amazing results in defiance of conventional wisdom.
It's not lost on Galloway and Pierson that this self-made man is now a role model as towering as his work. Busloads of kids stand wide-eyed, and Fryar keeps on the lookout for future apprentices. His neighbors have taken after him, partly in a vain attempt to "keep up with" the Fryars, but more as a method of self-exploration. Pearl's minister, Rev. Jerome McCray, can't say enough about his friend and the love his garden exudes (indeed, "LOVE PEACE + GOODWILL" is etched into the Fryars' main lawn). In the poorest county in the state, Fryar has made his own strange and beautiful oasis, through vision, work ethic, and seemingly unflagging energy. The film that carries his name is cheerful and inspirational, a warm reminder that tending our gardens need not be an isolating task.