Name: Joe Kyte
Hometown: Oak Ridge, Tenn.
It's a rare day that Joe Kyte doesn't find strangers in his yard taking pictures.
Kyte, otherwise known as Topiary Joe, crafts living sculptures for high-end homes and big-name enterprises, often using his home as a staging ground. There are personal projects, too, like the towering evergreen couch that's become one of the well-known photo stops on the Cherohala Skyway which starts in front of his house in Tellico Plains.
He has created one-of-a-kind yard art, emblems and mascots for a long list of clients that spans the globe, everyone from Coca-Cola to Callaway Gardens and Prince Charles and Camilla to the Nashville Predators.
His self-taught skills are an organic outlet for his tinkering nature, but his story is almost as fanciful as the installations he spends months creating.
Below, he shares how he came to be building what will be the biggest topiary in the world, located in Fitzgerald, Georgia, along with some of the interesting offshoots of his roughly 40-year career.
>>> I went to UT for marketing. I was in the horticulture library one day and read this article that said people are happier inside a greenhouse because you get like 2 or 3% more oxygen to your brain so it makes you happy. I figured that would be an easy sale ... so I got into horticulture that way.
>>> I've always been into horticulture. It's my chocolate-and-peanut-butter thing.
>>> I created a job at a Dutch company in Atlanta. They had a sales position opening but they wouldn't take anybody because they were too busy. So I went in and just started working there. That led to working with Grodan Rockwool, which is a hydroponics company in Denmark. They still have a contract with Disney in Epcot.
>>> While at the Disney farm there, I was looking around and saw how they were building their own topiaries. They had their own labor sitting there stuffing them slowly and surely. I asked if they needed help.
>>> My dad had an arc welder in the backyard. He was an electrical engineer at Y-12. My dad told me I could do it with just a stick welder and a table vice. That was my revelation. That's what I still do. It's the simplest of tools.
>>> I get calls from all the over world now. Disney called this morning.
>>> I did an estate in San Diego where I spent three months living on the estate. It's got 13 of my sculptures on it. I got to spend three months in Sandals and Beaches resorts. I made sculptures for 16 different resorts.
>>> I got to step on Prince Charles' foot. I met Ravi Shankar and his daughter. Annie Lennox, I got to sit down and talk with her for about 15 minutes. Nobody was talking to her ... so I just said, "Hi, I'm Joe. Who are you?" I got to do the same to Rob Lowe and his wife.
>>> Right now I'm building a 62-foot-tall chicken in Fitzgerald, Georgia, and it's got a hotel room going into it. They had big chicken envy over the big chicken [I did] in Marietta at the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Now they've got people booking that thing three years out and I still haven't finished building it.
>>> The one I'm doing for Shanghai is going to breathe — a yoga figure 20 feet tall siting in lotus pose and breathing in and out. I'm going to do it with an old washing machine motor.
>>> [My sculptures are] things that are gonna make people go, "Huh?" and make kids smile, because that's what it's all about.
>>> Every day, people come and get their picture taken on this big green couch [in my yard]. It's kind of an attraction here. I saw a car race come by here last Sunday morning and everybody had to stop and take a picture on it as part of the race.
>>> I have a piece of artwork on the grounds at the [Chattanooga] Choo Choo, a train behind the parking garage. That one will last 15 or 20 years.
>>> It's a steel wire frame and we bend and weld and hand-do everything on that; then it's stuffed with sphagnum moss, which is a substitute for soil and you can plant right into that. They're portable on bases and usually self-contained with a drip irrigation system. Or they're fake but it looks like the real thing.
>>> [The hardest part] is surviving check to check when I don't have any projects going on and keeping my crew alive, because I'm supporting like three families.
>>> I make all the sculptures to support my car habit. My first was a '62 MG Midget. That was 278 cars ago.
>>> [My dad] got me going on the cars because he was always a car guy. I started when I was 13. I'm from Oak Ridge and there's a bunch of old Mercedes because of all the scientists. My mom and dad's friends had driven them when they came, and then left them in their backyard.
>>> It's harder to finish off the cars because they're a never-ending story. There's a Mercedes coupe that's been out there for 15 years or something like that, and now that I've got the body all beautiful, now the mechanics are going. There goes another 10 grand — to start.
To learn more about Topiary Joe’s work or to solicit your own piece, visit topiaryjoe.com.