by John Stoehr
Tonight is your last chance to see "A Man Named Pearl" at the Terrace Theater. It's a documentary about Pearl Fryar, a self-taught topiary artist in Bishopville, S.C., a small agricultural township east of Columbia (that's for us transplants). He transformed his small number of acres into an Alice in Wonderland-like experience, spending years and years molding and shaping trees according to his life-long vision.
The film celebrates Fryar's achievements as an artist, a civic leader, influence on children and role model emulated by his many neighbors and friends. There are attempts to compare Fryar's impact on the art world with the impact of Jackie Robinson on the world of baseball. But the attempt is short-lived, perhaps because the comparison is too iffy. The filmmakers don't go into the art as much as I would have preferred, or into the fascinating field of "self-taught," or "outsider," artists. The cinematography doesn't reflect the mathematical elegance of Fryar's creations either.
But "A Man Named Pearl" does an good job as paying tribute to the powerful spark of creativity: how it comes out of nowhere sometimes and is hard to recognize when it does. I also enjoyed hearing the perspectives of some of the many thousands of people who travel to Bishopville every year just to see Fryar's creation. Above all is the man himself: a charming, craggy, deep-voiced sage who has become an icon for a beleaguered small town lamenting the loss of the simple life.