Howard Finster (ca. 1915-2001)
The Reverend Howard Finster emerged from the rural Appalachian culture of northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia to become one of America's most important creative personalities in the last quarter of the twentieth century. He was a visionary artist in various visual media as well as a poet and a musician,
Finster was not unique as a self-taught environmental and visual artist: many significant individuals in the South and beyond have created distinctive and inspired art works and environments. Yet well before his death he had produced a highly personal body of work, including thousands of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints; and recorded and written narratives and musical material—original songs and folk-style improvisations on homemade tapes as well as commercial LP and CD issues. He had been included in hundreds of exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale in 1984 and a major exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 1996. He had interacted and collaborated with artists, rock musicians, students, and teachers. His bibliography includes two major monographs, autobiographical books, and recordings, as well as hundreds of articles and entries in exhibition catalogs.
Born in 1915 or 1916 in Valley Head, Alabama, Finster grew up in a family of thirteen children. He was nurtured in a rural Baptist background, in long-standing traditions of storytelling, humor, and music making, and in an approach to art and objects that was shaped by make-do craftsmanship, popular religious illustration, and idiosyncratic roadside attractions. This suggests that his genius did not spring mysteriously from his inner being or from received visions (although he argued the contrary), but at least in significant measure from cultural traditions.
Steeped in rural Baptist religion and shape-note singing, Finster recalled among his formative experiences having a vision of his dead sister when he was three years old, being saved at a revival in 1929, and hearing a call to be a preacher in 1931. With his wife of two years, Pauline, and their first child, he moved in 1937 to Chattooga County, Georgia, where he spent the rest of his life. In the 1940s, as his family grew, he worked in the cotton mills in the town of Trion, preached revivals in the area, and eventually began to pastor the first of several Baptist churches he served until his retirement from formal ministry in 1965. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he constructed his first "park," mainly to fulfill his creative urges and please his family and community. This outdoor museum at his home in Trion featured small replicas of churches and heavenly "mansions."
In 1961 the Finsters moved to Pennville, between Trion and Summerville, where he worked at bicycle and small-engine repairing and at woodcraft. At this time, in response to a mystical vision, Finster began filling a marshy area behind his house and undertook the construction of what he called his "Plant Farm Museum," which eventually contained plywood and concrete sculptures; walls, buildings, and trellises festooned with "every man-made item"; didactic, humorous, and religious texts and homilies;
After what he termed "the publicity part of it" started, Finster welcomed an ever-increasing stream of visitors to the ongoing art project. Art professors like Andy Nasisse from the University of Georgia and Victor Faccinto from Wake Forest University in North Carolina began encouraging Finster to visit art schools and universities to lecture and to do "workouts" (collaborative art projects) with students. Allan Jabbour, director of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, commissioned major paintings for that institution,
In 1983 Finster appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight show on NBC, where he resisted Carson's attempt to draw chuckles from the audience by having him describe the oddities of Paradise Garden. Finster literally took over the show, playing his banjo and singing humorous didactic songs. Though he was already appreciated in the academic and art worlds, the Tonight show appearance signaled Finster's entrance into mainstream American culture; from that time many of his family members began helping him in his endeavors and producing spin-off "Finster" art of their own. Gradually his hometown community moved from viewing him as a local eccentric to counting him as a community asset and instituting a "Howard Finster Day" folk art festival.
Finster's most original and powerful contributions to art were his garden, the sculptural and architectural works within it such as his bicycle frame constructions and the World's Folk Art Church, and the powerful paintings of the 1970s and early 1980s. These latter works, rich in formal and poetic invention, are apocalyptic visions laced with humor and personal/universal imagery.
The Final Years
In the last fifteen years of his life Finster continued to be featured in numerous exhibitions,
When he died in 2001 the garden was being maintained by his family and supporters, while important three-dimensional works, as well as paintings, had been placed in collections and museums. The High Museum created a permanent installation of Finster's art.
By the end of the decade, Paradise Garden, including the chapel, had fallen into serious disrepair. Restoration efforts began around 2010, and in early 2012 Chattooga County purchased the property. The newly formed Paradise Garden Foundation, meanwhile, assumed management responsibility. In April the garden was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in June the property received two major grants to aid in restoration—$445,000 from ArtPlace America and $225,000 from the Educational Foundation of America.
Howard Finster is recognized today as a major artist, rather than an interesting eccentric belonging to some hard-to-define subcategory of "outsider" or "folk" art. He ultimately forged an important body of work that lives up to the most frequently quoted inscription from his garden:
I TOOK THE PIECES YOU THREW AWAY
AND PUT THEM TOGETHER BY NIGHT AND DAY
WASHED BY RAIN AND DRIED BY SUN
A MILLION PIECES ALL IN ONE.
Thelma Finster Bradshaw, Howard Finster, the Early Years: A Private Portrait of America's Premier Folk Artist (Birmingham, Ala.: Crane Hill, 2001).
Art Rosenbaum, Folk Visions and Voices: Traditional Music and Song in North Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983).
J. F. Turner, Howard Finster, Man of Visions: The Life and Work of a Self-Taught Artist (New York: Knopf, 1989).
The Night Howard Finster Got Saved, #CD3001 (New York: Global Village Music, 1997), sound recording.
Art Rosenbaum, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.