By Melissa O’Brien
Mike Gibson is a self-taught topiary artist and entrepreneur who has spent more than 20 years beautifying residential, commercial, and community spaces. He is on a mission to beautify the world with topiary and educate others on the benefits of topiary through demonstrations and hands-on workshops. We chatted with Mike about his career, who inspires him, and what it means to be one of the few Black artists in the horticulture industry.
Mike Gibson: I started clipping at a very young age. My father is an award-winning artist. He taught me how to draw and that just translated into the yard. We had some perfectly trimmed, geometrically shaped shrubs and trees around the yard that he was very meticulous about and taught me how to trim. By seven, I started falling more in love with this chore and started getting interested in what I was doing and how I was doing it. By the time I started reaching my teenage years, I was already doing the neighbors, people across the street, and I was across town doing members of the church. So I always had this knack for landscaping, which is a division under the umbrella of horticulture. But I would say my interest in horticulture became more prevalent when I started working at the lawn care company TruGreen in my 20s.
Mike Gibson: When I was a door-to-door salesman at TruGreen, we had to complete a rigorous training course on horticulture. You had to learn about the different types of grasses, weeds, insects, and diseases that could be affecting them. Later that season, we switched over to trees and shrubs because the lawn was going dormant, and we started learning about all these different trees and shrubs that I was trimming, but I didn't know the names of them and the different diseases that could affect them. So, I started going even deeper, downloading apps that would identify trees and going to the library to take out books to have a greater understanding and appreciation of horticulture. From there, I eventually started branching out and doing more topiary. I started getting more interested in looking at the trees and shrubs a little differently instead of just cutting them.
At the time, I was doing a lot of landscaping -- I was cutting grass, laying mulch, and all of that -- but then I started leaning more toward what I loved. And being an artist, I found a different medium to express myself, and that was trees. I can see these different designs in them. When I was 10, I started learning how to cut hair. Before I started working at TruGreen, I used to have these, what I call hair sculptures, which really turned out to be topiaries in my hair. I was always cutting something, either trees or hair.
Mike Gibson: After I left TruGreen, I started my own landscaping business. I was living in Columbus at the time and I'm from Youngstown, Ohio, so I went to visit my family there over the holidays. I showed my dad some of my topiary work, and he immediately referenced Pearl Fryar. He showed me Pearl's work and I was mind blown. I'd never seen anything like it. I thought I was doing something different, but Pearl had been doing it for decades already and had this elaborate topiary garden in Bishopville, South Carolina. So that’s how I started becoming a topiary artist because after I heard about Pearl, it changed my life. I didn't want to do anything else.
After doing rigorous research, I found that Pearl was really the only Black topiary artist that became well known. So I asked myself: what is going to happen if Pearl isn't here anymore? Who's going to be the next Black topiary artist? And I figured, if he's number one, I should be number two. I look at Pearl as one of the greatest topiary artists to ever live. Pearl set the standard.
Mike Gibson: I went on a mission to help beautify my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, which was going through a revitalization process. I wanted to be a part of that movement, so I offered my services of doing topiary. I can beautify properties and sculpt these trees in any shape, and it becomes a beautiful oasis no matter where it's at. It's always going to be more inviting. It's going to decrease negativity within that area. That's what landscaping does, that's what beautiful areas do.
Our area code is 330 and I wanted to create 330 topiaries to honor Youngstown and help beautify it at the same time. It took me six years, and I was able to beautify Youngstown with 330 topiaries spread all over the city.
Mike Gibson: Something that makes my style unique is what I call illusion art. I love to make topiary look like one thing from one perspective and something totally different from another perspective. So, if you're standing in front of the shrub and I'm behind it, you may see a G and you're looking at it from your perspective right now. Now I'm looking at it, and it’s an S. It plays tricks with your eyes and that's something that is indicative of my style, and nobody else is doing that. I also do a lot of golden spirals based on the Fibonacci sequence.
Mike Gibson: I've had some success over the years, but I often wonder, will my success be limited because of the color of my skin? Identifying as a topiary artist, I'm in a unique space, and add race, I'm one of the only black topiary artists in the public eye in the country. I'm thankful to have had Pearl Fryar to look up to, he really paved the way. There is such a lack of representation unfortunately in horticulture as a whole, from staff to board rooms. I'm trying to continue to break down those barriers and not allow them to hinder my progress. I want to inspire kids that look like me that this is something they can do too.
Mike Gibson: I would tell someone that is interested in gardening and landscaping to never give up. It's going to be hard at first, but you're going to grow to love it just like a tree. Always be a student of horticulture. Never say that you know everything because you'll never know everything about horticulture. You'll always keep learning and coming up with new ideas on how you can improve something. Find a mentor that you can emulate, and then aim to be even better than them.
Mike Gibson: At this point in my life, I’m interested in creating a legacy and passing down all this knowledge I've learned over these years. I want to teach people that look like me how to do topiary and educate them on using topiary as a form of therapeutic horticulture.
There's a new cultural arts center in Columbia, South Carolina that just opened and we want to educate the community on all types of art. As the first artist-in-residence at the Ernest A. Finney Jr., Cultural Art Center, my goal is to spread the knowledge of topiary throughout the community by doing workshops, lectures, and demonstrations, and teaching the community the benefits of doing topiary. I feel that by doing this, not only will it help inspire others to want to do the same, but it also will improve their daily lives as well.
Mike Gibson is speaking at the 2023 Woody Plant Conference, and PHS is a proud partner for this annual event. Sign up for email updates to learn more!