Renowned topiary garden makes a comeback with help from UofSC
McKissick Museum leads the effort to restore SC landmark
By Bryan Gentry
Back in 2014, Mike Gibson was proud of his “property art” — sculptures he carved in the foliage of trees and shrubs — so he showed some photos of his work to his dad.
“I did a huge sculpture that I thought was a game changer,” says Gibson, who lived in Ohio at the time. “I thought no one else was doing this type of thing.”
But his dad set the record straight. It’s not “property art,” it’s topiary. And South Carolina’s Pearl Fryar was king of topiary.
So Gibson made a pilgrimage to Bishopville, South Carolina, to see the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden in person. He walked the well-worn paths through the 3-acre garden, following in the footsteps of countless schoolchildren, vacationers and aspiring topiary artists who had looked there for inspiration. He spent hours talking to Fryar, known as the nation’s preeminent African American topiary artist, and learning about his techniques.
“I fell in love with not just Pearl, but also with topiary.” Gibson says. “Seeing his sculptures in person and meeting him, and seeing how he was doing it, inspired me even more.”
Today, Gibson spends a lot more time in Fryar’s garden. With a pair of shears and the occasional use of power hedge trimmers, he snips bits and pieces of holly bushes and trees to refine their shape. Gibson is the topiary artist-in-residence for the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, and his job is to restore Fryar’s living sculptures to the shape that thousands of visitors from around the world enjoyed for years.
“It was kind of full circle that I even had this opportunity,” Gibson says. “He’s a direct inspiration for my work and the work I've been doing over the years.”
So how did Gibson, a landscaper and topiary artist from Ohio, end up renovating a garden in rural South Carolina on behalf of a museum at the state’s flagship university? To answer that question, you must first understand what the garden means to people far and wide.
A community effort
Fryar first saw topiary art while serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and he later decided he wanted to experiment with it himself. In the mid-1980s, he started crafting topiary sculptures on his property in South Carolina, often transplanting throwaway plants from local nurseries, nourishing them to health and trimming branches to bring his ideas to life.
The swirling shapes and whimsical designs in living trees caught the eye of visitors. The garden’s message — love, peace and goodwill, spelled out in larger-than-life letters made from garden beds — caught on, too.
“It truly was inspiring,” says Bettye Scott, a longtime friend and former neighbor of Fryar. “I personally witnessed a lot of the hours and efforts he put into it. Because of that transformation, people from all over the world have come to view that garden.”
Fryar has been on national television and in major gardening magazines, and his garden became a global tourist stop. Fryar’s artistry also can be seen along streets in Bishopville, at the State Museum in Columbia and on the South Carolina campus. Fryar and his garden were the subject of the award-winning 2006 documentary, A Man Named Pearl. Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, Fryar was in talks with the Atlanta Botanical Garden about doing topiary sculptures there.
“The legend should be maintained because of what he's been able to do,” Scott says. “We should work hard to maintain it because of the impact it’s had on the nation.”
Preserving this garden is just the right thing to do.
Jane Przybysz, director of the McKissick Museum
But as America grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, Fryar’s health was declining with age. The 81-year-old topiary artist speaks matter-of-factly.
“I can't do what I used to do,” he says.
In November 2020, Jane Przybysz, director of the McKissick Museum at South Carolina, got a phone call from a teacher who took students on field trips to Fryar’s garden and was concerned about the garden becoming overgrown. Because the museum had worked with community gardens in Columbia, the teacher wondered if Przybysz could help Fryar with his garden.
Neither Przybysz nor her staff are topiary artists, but she immediately wanted to help. In her mind, it is more than a garden. It’s a monument to African American resilience in shaping the Southern landscape.
Community members in Bishopville came to multiple town hall meetings to express their hopes for the garden’s long-term viability as well.
“They are just passionate about preserving this garden,” Przybysz says. “They think it’s really important for the world of horticulture, and I think it’s important from a social justice perspective. Preserving this garden is just the right thing to do.”
Bringing it all together
A grant from the Central Carolina Community Foundation made it possible for the museum to support efforts to revitalize the garden. Przybysz contacted the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which agreed to help. In March 2021, they sent staff members to trim some of the topiary sculptures that needed immediate attention. Gibson was there that day, revisiting the place that meant so much to him (since 2014, he had been back several times, including one time to propose to his wife). When he saw crews working to restore the garden, he picked up a set of shears and started helping.
Przybysz drove from Columbia to Bishopville to meet Gibson, who was enthusiastic about getting involved.
“I pitched her on, how do I become a part of this project? What do I need to do to be a part of this?” Gibson says.
This summer, Gibson moved his family from Ohio to South Carolina so he could focus on Fryar’s garden full time. Even while moving at a good clip, it will take a full year to restore the garden. After that, he plans to turn his attention to ongoing maintenance. He also will teach topiary techniques to people in the Bishopville community inspired to follow in Fryar’s footsteps.
“I see this as a long-haul project,” he says.
But people already are noticing the work in the garden. Gibson recently sent Przybysz a photo showing Fryar at the doorway of his house lecturing to a group of college students, and a tour group from China reached out to schedule a visit for 2022.
Przybysz says she hopes the renewed attention to Fryar’s garden will lead to long-term solutions to preserve it for years.
“It’s the right thing, it's the right time, and Mike is the right person to be leading it,” Przybysz says. “He sees himself as a protégé of Pearl. He's passionate about what Pearl has done and wants to preserve his legacy.”
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