View of Paradise Gardens from the late 1970's. Photographer unknown. Courtesy private collection.

Opinion: Howard Finster’s legacy and cultural impact endure despite the folk artist’s status on the margins

Howard Finster. Various untitled works, 1970s. Private Collection. 

The first time I heard someone say the name Howard Finster I was 16, riding in a van across the Southern states with a group of like-minded do-gooding teenagers. Our trip, Service to the South, was organized by the Kentucky YMCA and featured 10 days on the road touring cultural sites and doing service work in five Southern cities. Jeff, our driver and adult chaperone three years my senior, provided the first vague but enthusiastic description:

“So there’s this guy, Howard Finster. He’s a preacher in northwest Georgia. He turned his whole house and yard into this Paradise Garden with paintings and sculptures about Jesus and Elvis. It’s rad, man. He doesn’t even sleep. He just drinks Coke and paints all night.”

I am not, to my mother’s chagrin, a religious person, but I do love Elvis, gardening, and anyone who would elect to paint all night rather than sleep. “Let’s go! It’s not that far,” I pleaded with the group, but most of our van’s passengers weren’t convinced that this site was worth a three-hour detour. We kept driving, but sight unseen, my interest had been piqued.

In retrospect, I have no idea why such a banal description so void of detail engaged me at all. Nevertheless, upon returning home, I began doing my own self-styled research into Finster and his work. My fascination quickly bloomed into a mild obsession. My friends and family politely feigned interest, as I delved deeper into the life and career of the artist.

Howard Finster, a self-proclaimed Man of Visions, God’s Last Red-light, Second Noah, Stranger From Another World and Minister of the World’s Folk Art Church, was born in Valley Head, Alabama in 1916, one of 13 children. A life-long preacher, Finster also worked as a farmer, factory employee, bicycle repairman and eventually professional artist. In 1961 Howard moved his family to Pennville, where he began constructing the Plant Farm Museum, a roadside attraction built on the swamp in his backyard that purported to have one of  “every man-made item” and was composed of makeshift buildings, concrete sculptures, waterways, biblical signs, paintings, towers constructed from bicycle frames and even an “unknown body.”  In 1975, Esquire magazine referred to Finster’s environment as a “Garden of Paradise,” and the artist willingly began referring to it as Paradise Garden.

The next year, Finster reported having a vision to “paint sacred art” when a dab of paint on his thumb spoke to him. Finster responded to the call, working day and night in every medium available to him, with one goal: to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. To reach a maximum audience, he incorporated iconic figures from American history like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Henry Ford and George Washington, to name a few, into his paintings, sculptures and famous “cutouts.” Finster’s most compelling works are inventive and poetic biblical lessons that incorporate humor and gravity in equal measure.

Most of this I learned in the late ’90s from, a very rudimentary website run by the family, complete with a PayPal checkout cart for purchases of works made by Howard and a whole slew of family members. As of today, it is still online and largely unchanged. I also signed up for the Paradise Garden mailing list, receiving exactly one piece of mail: a two-sided glossy catalog of cutouts (availability subject to change). Only later would I realize that he had illustrated two of my favorite records: the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures and R.E.M.’s Reckoning.

Picture of the Paradise Gardens entrance, 1990. Image taken by and courtesy of Phillip March Jones.
Picture of the Paradise Gardens entrance, 1990. Image taken by and courtesy of Phillip March Jones.

My first trip to Paradise Garden was later that same year on a return trip from my grandparent’s house in Miami.  My mother, always up for making any road trip slightly longer, agreed to make a detour off I-75 and into Pennville, Georgia, home to both Howard Finster and his garden. We pulled into the painted driveway of his studio having driven 10 hours in a Jeep Wrangler with two passengers, a dog, and plenty of luggage.

He wasn’t there.

We decided to tour the garden. I led my brother around, pointing out the environment’s different features: the bicycle tower, the World’s Folk Art Church, the hallway of the inventions of mankind, the coin man sculpture, and a small rendering of George Washington that was surely his first painting. In January it is cold even in Georgia, so we didn’t spend the whole afternoon there. Besides, we had six more hours to go to home in Lexington.

I did not leave empty-handed. Over the previous six months, I had cobbled together enough money ($75) to buy a small cutout of Elvis Presley in the military — a profile drawing of the King decked out in green fatigues and attached to a wooden base complete with a photocopied sermon glued to the top. A few days later, on my actual birthday, my mother would present me with another cutout of a bull with the words “bull-heeded [sic] and stubborn” written across the animal’s forehead. And so my art collection began.

When I finally met Howard Finster a few months later at Folk Fest in Atlanta, he asked me what I did, and I said I was a student but that I also made ceramics. I showed him a picture of a vase I had made, and he suggested I make photocopies of it with my name, address, and phone number. “That’s basically how I done it. People who like your work will know how to get ahold of you that way,” he told me.

Scan of a brochure from Paradise Garden, 1990.
Scan of a brochure from Paradise Gardens, 1990.

I watched him interact with everyone that day in much the same way: Howard asking them about their lives and families and jobs, offering unsolicited but genuine advice on an array of subjects including marriage, careers, and, of course, art-making. Decades spent preaching had clearly formed his abilities to both connect and counsel.

Years later, I would understand the impact of Finster’s work on my own life. Though staunch in his religious and moral beliefs, he was completely open to the world. Every material offered a possibility. Every person afforded a potential connection. And every idea was worth exploring. This uninhibited creative spirit did not always create artistic masterpieces, but it always made something worth seeing. Finster’s innate openness and seemingly endless curiosity not only shaped my basic beliefs about the world but provided a path to my career as a curator, gallerist, and publisher.

During his lifetime, Howard Finster was widely honored. Major magazine articles, record album commissions, a guest appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and visits to the garden by everyone from Keith Haring to Allen Ginsberg cemented his art celebrity status.  In 1996, Finster was a featured artist in Atlanta’s Cultural Olympiad. A permanent exhibition of his works was also installed in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. Years prior, in the late 1970s, he completed a series of paintings for the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center and his work joined the collections of the Whitney Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and others.

Howard Finster would have turned 100 this December, but his work is still on the margins of both the contemporary and outsider artistic communities. Perhaps the sheer volume of his production (more than 46,000 hand-numbered objects varying in both scale and quality) prevents people from looking too deeply at his greatest works. Maybe the message of salvation through Christ, even with the help of pop culture icons, aliens, and rock ’n’ roll is just too . . . well, Christian. Still, his work can be found in both major museums and on countless bookshelves, dressers and nightstands across the world. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is indeed the sheer ubiquity of his paintings, sculptures and sermons that continue to preach the artist’s unique blend of science fiction and faith long after his death.


Related posts