'Shockingly evil'

This photo of Carol and James 'Reggie' Sumner was taken after they moved to Florida in 2005. The couple, who were both 61 and in frail health, were robbed, kidnapped and buried a few months later.

BISHOPVILLE -- As Pearl Fryar settles into a seat at the Waffle House, and the waitress automatically brings him iced tea, he explains why he wanted to talk here instead of at the famous garden he created in his yard a mile away.

"If I stay there, it's always an interruption," he says.

A longtime factory worker who made Coca-Cola cans, Fryar, a Clinton, N.C. native, bought a cornfield here on Broad Acres Road and built a ranch-style house in 1982.

It's what happened next that put him on the map.

With no real knowledge of horticulture, Fryar began collecting plants and shrubs others were throwing away, and he began using clippers and other tools to bend them into shapes that experts probably would have said were ill- advised, if not impossible.

He first won the town's Yard of the Month award, then received some national television attention, followed by a commission from the Spoleto Festival USA (which still can be seen behind 91 Anson St.), a documentary movie deal and a growing number of other honors.

His garden now is a preservation project of the Garden Conservancy, and Fryar is using his new fame and influence to encourage the next generation.

At 71, Fryar might be South Carolina's unlikeliest artist, and his story offers five lessons for anyone nurturing their own creative drive.

Find your own path

Fryar never studied horticulture or plants, not in school or anywhere else.

For 36 years, until he retired in 2002, he had a day job making soda cans.

But he always considered himself the creative type, and when he began working in his yard, he wasn't out to emulate any existing garden or landscape.

"The idea was this: Create a garden different from anyone else, from any garden you have seen," he says. "I didn't know you weren't supposed to be doing what I'm doing."

Just as a starving artist seeks the best deals on canvas and oils, Fryar salvaged misshapen plants discarded by a local nursery. He didn't even know the names of some of them.

"It's not a garden to me. It's not plants that I work with. They mean nothing to me. I use plants for my creativeness," he says. "Plants just happen to be a means, and junk art, are a media to express my creative ability. ... If I could have put it on paper or canvas, I would never use plants."

Fryar says his day job at the can plant took away any pressure to succeed, financially or otherwise, with his topiary art.

"I can actually take two shoots, tie them and I can make them grow together and then cut them into one. They close," he says. Some told him plants wouldn't take that, "but I didn't know that. For one time in my life, ignorance paid off."

"The reason you don't see people with a horticulture background doing what I do is because I broke the rules," he adds. "But that's thinking outside the box. If you ever hear a person say, 'Everything they do is according to the book,' then that person is never going to get credit for what they do because the person who wrote the book has already gotten credit for that."

Hard work = success

Fryar received a college degree and has a deep interest in others' education, but he knows education is not an end in itself.

"Success is not determined by academics. Success is determined by work," he says. "Show me anyone who works at anything with a passion and has patience, they're going to be successful."

Fryar says it's important to be honest about what you know and don't know, and part of his work is seeking knowledge and advice from others.

"Check the circle you run in. If you're the smartest person in your circle, you need to change circles because you need to run with people smarter than you," he says.

Fryar says many people have the wrong concept about work. "Work has never hurt anyone. It's the lack of work, right? I created a monster. I'm working harder now than I've ever worked in my life, but I'm doing what I want to do."

Marketing is key

While Fryar's approach is his own, he is very conscious of how others view his work.

His so-called "junk art," metal garden sculptures built from scrap and discarded items, often carries messages valuing love over hate.

The words "Love, peace and goodwill" are carved in beds planted with red begonias.

"Anytime you create something that ladies like, you will get tremendous support," he says, half-jokingly.

"You don't do things always just for yourself. You do it for the people. I have the largest congregation in South Carolina, and most of the people, I'll only see them once in a lifetime. But if you ever come to my garden, you're going to walk away with some message and you're going to never forget that garden because it's positive."

His work has been sought out not only by the local Waffle House, which lets him eat for free in exchange for maintaining a small topiary garden outside, but also by John Deere Corp., which aired a national television commercial featuring Fryar during the past year.

"It doesn't matter how good you are at what you do. No. 2 is marketing," he says. "I was able to take a cornfield and make the local paper. You can get publicity once or twice, but how do you get to the point where it will sustain itself? ... I was able to pull that off."

Enjoy the snowball

Fryar says he never really had one big break, not the "Yard of the Month" award or his commissions from Spoleto or the State Museum in Columbia, not even the award-winning 2006 documentary, "A Man Named Pearl."

"It snowballs," he says. "You want to go from the bottom to the top, that's hard to do. It's just like a snowball rolling down the hill. As that ball rolls, it gets larger, if you work hard enough and stay with it. That is success. You don't go from college grad to CEO of a company unless your father owns the company."

His neighbors don't seem to mind the steady stream of visitors from across the state and across the country.

Several of them have trimmed their own shrubs, mimicking his distinctive style and giving his street an even greater sense of place.

"As a matter of fact," he says, "I picked up a couple of things from them."

It's not just about you

Fryar currently has two goals. One is to help build a foundation to the point where it can maintain his garden when he is no longer able to.

The other is to give scholarships to C students -- students whose talents haven't been rewarded through more traditional academic and athletic scholarships.

"In the final analysis and the later days of your life, it's not going to be what you accomplish in life that's going to make you feel good about yourself," he said in a video on his scholarship program. "It's going to be the people who you helped to make a difference in their lives."

Despite the fame from his gardening, he cites his son's degree from Coastal Carolina University as his greatest accomplishment.

But helping others get an education isn't the only way he gives back. He also is fueled by others' appreciation for what he has done.

"I get about 20-30 hugs a day," he says. "I take pictures with a lot of ladies. What more do you want?" he asks.

"If you gave $1 million to me today, I wouldn't be any happier than I am right now. I might go out and buy some bigger toys, but I'm a happy man."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.