IN AN era when superheroes dominate the box office, a documentary about a lanky, 68-year-old topiary artist in the rural South hardly sounds like an attention-grabber. Yet “A Man Named Pearl,” which opens in limited release this week in Southern California, delivers a compelling tale of an ordinary man with extraordinary abilities.
The film explores the passion and philosophy of tree sculptor Pearl Fryar. Born to a sharecropper and retired from the Bishopville, S.C., can factory where he worked for 36 years, Fryar rescues trees from the compost heap of his neighborhood nursery and nurtures them in his garden.
Armed with an electric hedge clipper, he goes to work, often at night with the help of a spotlight, a rickety ladder and a jury-rigged lift. He can invest years into perfecting an arch, a spiral, a box atop a sphere or a cone atop a box. Some trees take on the shapes of fish skeletons; others are fantasy forms from Fryar's imagination.
The artist's foray into topiary began in the 1980s, when Fryar and his wife looked for a new home. One neighborhood spurned them, fearing that an African American couple wouldn't keep up their yard. In response, Fryar set his sights on being the first black recipient of the local garden club's Yard of the Month award.
With no training in art or horticulture, Fryar followed an instinct that soon became a passion. Today he carves more than 3 acres of amazing topiaries, attracting other artists, gardeners and national media.
The Garden Conservancy recently started a project to preserve Fryar's garden for future generations.
"It may seem that a man who does topiary is an unlikely superhero, but Pearl is a hero to people in his town and people who come to visit him," said Brent Pierson, who produced and directed the film with Scott Galloway. "His message about how to tend your garden and tend your life is touching people."