How Mike Gibson Became Artist-in-Residence at the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden

ARTnews 2022

“This is my Versailles,” Mike Gibson says as we stand in a backyard in Bishopville, South Carolina. He pauses for a moment, regarding this perfect site of precisely trimmed trees and geometric shrubs, and displays an abundance of pride. For me, this topiary garden is a wonderland. Standing in the shadows of a row of slinky, sensuous, and hulking trees, I feel a deep sense of letting go as the trees accept my admiration.

Five months ago, Gibson acquired the unique title of topiary artist-in-residence of the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden, and as we stand there the 35-year-old exudes a sureness that he is exactly where he should be. But building something to last forever is difficult. Everything here is always a work in progress. Nothing is lost on Gibson: There is a dying juniper, and many of the beds need clearing. The longer he looks, the longer his to-do list grows.

You wonder how one man could have built all this. Yet one man did. Pearl Fryar began this journey back in 1980 after looking for a home near his job as an engineer for a Coca-Cola bottling factory. Fryar, who is Black, felt unwelcome in a white neighborhood near the plant (“Black people don’t keep up their yards,” he was told) and settled on a mostly Black residential street farther out in Lee County. It was there that he began his relentless pursuit of the little Garden of the Month lawn sign that a local garden club awarded to meticulously groomed yards in the neighborhood. Fryar would work 12-hour shifts at the factory and then labor through the night on his garden with the help of a floodlight, a double-blade gas-powered hedge trimmer, a wobbly ladder, and a jury-rigged hydraulic lift. He did this with no training or horticultural books. He simply listened to the trees, opening them up, allowing the sun to shine in.

In 1984 a small pom-pom topiary caught his eye at a local nursery. The garden center’s owner gave Fryar a three-minute pruning lesson and a throwaway juniper to practice on. Fryar planted it, cultivated it (with no fertilizer or pesticides), pruned it, and was hooked. Soon came another plant, then another, mostly whatever he could rescue from the nursery’s compost heap, unwanted or near-death plants that were given to him or sold to him cheap. Gibson estimates that 40 percent of the trees in the garden came from the trash.

On his three-acre property, which was once a cornfield and almost certainly a plantation before that, Fryer created one of the most ornate and inviting landscapes of living, breathing, free-form sculpture imaginable. Notably, there is no set walking path, no preordained route; you are in the art. You must move slowly to reflect on its mathematical precision and consider each cut. After four decades, the garden has swelled to more than 400 abstract topiaries, and each tree and shrub is utterly singular. This is Fryar’s masterwork, his declaration of artistic daring, his flag of improvisational independence.

Consider the physical toll an achievement like this must have taken on the artist. The lifting, the climbing, the contorting of the body, the beating sun, the late nights (the city actually installed a streetlight in the yard), the need to prune incessantly. Due to health issues, Fryar, now 82, has used a wheelchair for the past two years, unable to maintain his garden. As Gibson phrases it, “Leaving a tree uncared for, for two years, is like shaking up a bottle of pop.” Fryar’s spirits deteriorated. He began speaking of accepting that the garden might perish. How would one preserve such a site, all born out of the unique vision of one man? Then Gibson pulled up in his truck.

He was built for this, having started trimming the bushes around his family’s home at the age of seven before developing an interest in geometric topiary and turning that early chore into his life’s work. As Gibson began to ascend in the profession, his father showed him photos of Fryar’s garden. His mind was blown, both by what Fryer had created and by learning he was not the only Black man in the field. His first visit to the garden was driving down from Youngstown, Ohio, in 2016, and he has vivid memories of stopping in the road before pulling into a grassy field and staring at the junipers. The photos hadn’t done them justice.

Gibson visited each year after that, bringing down his tools and ladders to help Fryar out and developing a friendship with the older man. He began to think of it as a second home. When his phone call to Fryar went unanswered in early 2021, he decided to drive down and investigate. He walked up to knee-high grass, rough bushes, and a crew from a horticultural company doing a hard shearing, trying to get things to a manageable state.

A month after that visit, Gibson packed up his family, set aside his own successful topiary business, and moved to South Carolina, having accepted an offer from the Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation organization, to become the garden’s topiary artist-in-residence. His residency is supported by the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, which has been helping with raising funds.

I had questions about an artist setting aside his own pursuits to work on another artist’s vision, but Gibson brushed these off. He feels he is getting a topiary master class, an opportunity to study the work of an artist who eschewed all convention. He’s not just chopping away with hedge trimmers, but slowing down, learning the patterns, thinking how Fryar would make these bushes into sculptures. Fortunately, before Gibson’s arrival, the Garden Conservancy had hired a garden manager who shadowed Fryar for a year, documenting his entire process. This has been the map back to the treasure—the key to a successful restoration.

Gibson’s goal is clear and admirable. He wants to make sure Fryar gets his due before he leaves this earth by having the garden recognized as a national monument. “I am in the endgame right now,” he says. He calls his job the culmination of “everything I’ve learned and done. To end up at Pearl Fryar’s topiary garden—this is the epitome of topiary in the world.”

(Photos by Alex Christopher Williams)