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Arts & Culture

This Side of Paradise

June 28, 2012 | by

Howard Finster was fixing a bicycle in his Summerville, Georgia, workshop one day when a smudge of paint on his index finger took the shape of a face, a face that spoke to him and told him, “Paint sacred art.” Finster, then in his sixties, had been many things in his life: a teenage tent-revival preacher, a pastor, a mill worker. He had never been an artist, but he had also never been a man to shirk the word of God.

That was in 1976. The Lord told him to make five thousand works, a quota he reached just before Christmas 1985. By the time he died in 2001, his catalogue had swelled to more than forty-six thousand pieces. He devised an intricate numbering system and timestamped many of his works upon completion; he often painted through the night, sleeping only intermittently. Sometimes he signed his paintings BY HOWARD FINSTER, OF GOD. MAN OF VISIONS.

His visions were childlike and ecstatic, cartoonish and rendered on a flat, perspectiveless plane in candy-land colors, irresistible even to art-world agnostics. In his lifetime Finster was celebrated beyond the dreams of the most ambitious formally trained artists. He mounted exhibitions at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and the Venice Biennale, made appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Good Morning America, had works commissioned by book publishers, rock bands, and Coca-Cola. In the decade since his death, there has been little question of his legacy. He was king of the folk-art heroes, a proud outsider with one big backwoods toe in the door. But in his wake there was no holy directive, no smudge of paint channeling the word of God, to tell anyone what to do with everything he left behind—and he left behind so much.

Hundreds if not thousands of his works are scattered in museums and galleries and homes around the world, but most of his output never left the confines of his four-acre homestead, a swampy corner lot in a neighborhood of cottages and bungalows at the edge of Summerville. It was a park, a museum, a church, his workshop, his masterpiece. He didn’t name the place Paradise Gardens—that came, probably, from a profile written about him in Esquire—but that is how the place has been known ever since, and how it will likely always be. Over the past ten years, Paradise Gardens often seemed close to sinking back into the murky pit from which Finster had built it up. His family did what they could after he passed, but it didn’t take long for the legions of unsheltered artworks and buildings—his clapboard studio, the church he bought and converted into the World’s Folk Art Chapel, his self-described Mirror House—to start sagging and graying and peeling away. Stewardship passed from his family to a Birmingham, Alabama–based preacher and investor who had trouble digging up funds for upkeep but at least kept the place from collapsing on itself. The gardens remained open for tourists and gawkers and pilgrims, and volunteers and admirers picked up some slack over time. Still, it was bleak. There was talk in some corners about letting the place go, letting the sumac and the kudzu do their sly yawn-and-stretch over the grounds, letting Finster’s work and his memory rest—in pieces, but at least in peace.

But in 2010 there came an uptick of hope when the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation included Paradise Gardens on its annual list of Places in Peril. The next year, Chattooga County (of which tiny Summerville is the county seat) received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to purchase the property. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Paradise Garden Foundation was formed and, in early 2012, signed a lease on the land—fifty years for a dollar. In April, the Gardens were added to the National Register of Historic Places, a designation usually reserved for sites more than fifty years old. And this month came the big news: $455,000 was on the way from the gift-giving conglomerate ArtPlace. The grant will fund the Gardens’ continued restoration, and just in time. This spring the Foundation found itself reroofing the towering, desperately rickety World Folk Art Chapel using cash raised from auctioning off works extracted from the Garden itself. These recent developments are a boon not just for the Gardens and Finster’s legacy, but for Summerville, too—or at least that’s the idea. Chattooga County’s lone commissioner, Jason Winters, and the foundation’s new executive director, Jordan Poole (a Chattooga-bred Savannah College of Art and Design alum with a stint as restoration manager of George Washington’s Mount Vernon on his résumé), are banking on the restoration to amp up local heritage tourism and give Summerville’s faltering economy a crucial bump. Forty miles south of Chattanooga and ninety miles northwest of Atlanta, there aren’t too many other reasons a person would find him or herself out that way. (The Atlanta-Journal Constitution and Creative Loafing both have full accounts of Winters and Poole’s big plans.)

This shiny new era of Paradise Gardens was ushered in the first weekend of May with a two-day festival in Summerville’s Dowdy Park, down by the old railroad tracks. It was called Finster Fest and you could buy a T-shirt to remember it. Bands played under a wooden gazebo, and dozens of crafts vendors, their wares qualified under some generous definition of folk art, fanned themselves in the shade of white nylon tents. Every so often a dirty white, bite-size charter bus would arrive and cart a new group away down Summerville’s quietly dessicated main drag and over across town to Paradise Gardens, depositing them at what once was the Gardens’ back gate but as of that weekend was its new front entrance, resettled under Poole’s advisement. On that Saturday, opening day, the gardens were full of families and couples and eager admirers meandering over the mosaic paths, peering into the meticulous chaos of Finster’s old workshop, snapping photos next to the towering whorl of hubcaps and bicycles that once starred in an R.E.M. music video. Summer was chomping at the bit, bugs doing their high, dry rattle in the bushes. The Gardens felt full and alive, perhaps for the first time in a very long while.

But still, even at Paradise Gardens’ emptiest, it’s hard to imagine the place feeling too lonely. Perhaps Finster intended this. There have always been hundreds of faces smiling out from every corner, irrepressible and unavoidable. On scrap wood and clapboard walls and the rusted-out hulls of ancient Cadillacs, Finster painted an endless parade of figures: dark-haired women in long, sherbet-colored dresses, clean-cut men in sharp jackets and hats, gray and white clouds with mischievous eyes, soaring angels wearing robes composed of still more faces, still more angels. There are black dancing devils and lopsided landscapes, too, and dinosaurs and wolves and whole scenes from the Bible. But if it’s true that God made us in his image, then Howard Finster remade us in his own. In his divinely unlearned hand, figures usually stare just shy of straight ahead, eyelashes like comb-teeth, mouths like wax lips. His angels, his clouds, his humans—all seem possessed of some wild knowledge, silent and blissful and crazed, as if they are seeing God himself over your shoulder but know he’ll be gone before you turn around.

Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Georgia.

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4 COMMENTS

4 Comments

  1. Christina Lee | July 1, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Now I’m itching to visit this place. Great work, Rachael!

  2. Amber | July 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Great article Rachel, but it still seems like nothing in print can do him justice. I remember my high school art teacher taking our Honors art class to Paradise Gardens in the spring of 1996 or 1997? I had always loved to create art but had never really been truly MOVED by a piece of art or particular artist. The first day I spent at Paradise Gardens was the most emotionally charged and real experience I have every had with someone else’s work.

    That day changed me in ways I never thought possible. I rea
    I’ve that may sound silly to people who have nev experienced it, but it is true. Growing up, my parents tried to expose my sister and I to as many cultural experiences and art as possible. I always kind of laughed inside at the people I saw at the High Museum in Atlanta who looked mesmerized and/or confused by a particular work of art. I thought to myself “really? You don’t need to feign interest and appreciation just bc it’s hanging in a museum!!”.

    And then it happened to me. The class of 10-15 students bled through the gate and just kept spreading through the grounds. I felt totally alone and like maybe I just didn’t “get it”, and then I noticed the sidewalks. Hunks of raw cement bedazzled with mirrors, sparkling pieces of glass, metal and plastic objects, tools, pieces of everything. That sidewalk drew me into the Garden and it was as if the real world disappeared and was no longer of any importance.

    I was THERE, as though Mr. Finster were standing near me, speaking to me in delicate tones. I felt like he just kept reminding me that the place was okay, that I was okay, that the world and my life was okay.

    At first I was taken aback by the raw, simplistic drawings and paintings covering every surface of every structure that seemed to SHOUT religious rhetoric at me. I started to feel uncomfortable and as though maybe they were speaking directly to me? I have never been a religious person and I have CERTAINLY done my fair share of sinning. I was almost afraid that the Devil himself and his hoards of servants might grab me from behind some gnarled mess of vines and mountains of spare parts.

    But as I continued deeper and deeper into Howard’s world as quickly as my fear set in it dissappeared. My initial sense of calm and awareness returned. I recall that moment so clearly, even now. I was looking at my own reflection reflected back and forth over and over until it was almost unrecognizable.

    I was standing before a small white building that felt almost like sacred ground- like a church. The inside was wallpapered in small to medium sized mirrors of all shapes. There were even shards of broken mirrors affixed to every wall, the ceiling, every available surface. Each mirror revealed to me a slightly different image and version or flavor of myself. Some of them were difficult to look at, others were very familiar and comforting.

    It felt as though something had moved through and into me. Despite my discomfort with the biblical dogma being shoved in my face, I connected on a spiritual level with something or someone. I don’t know that I can speak to what it was exactly- Howard Finster, a spirit of some sort, perhaps God, or maybe

  3. Amber | July 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Great article Rachel, but it still seems like nothing in print can do him justice. I remember my high school art teacher taking our Honors art class to Paradise Gardens in the spring of 1996 or 1997? I had always loved to create art but had never really been truly MOVED by a piece of art or particular artist. The first day I spent at Paradise Gardens was the most emotionally charged and real experience I have every had with someone else’s work.

    That day changed me in ways I never thought possible. I rea
    I’ve that may sound silly to people who have never experienced it, but it is true. Growing up, my parents tried to expose my sister and I to as many cultural experiences and art as possible. I always kind of laughed inside at the people I saw at the High Museum in Atlanta who looked mesmerized and/or confused by a particular work of art. I thought to myself “really? You don’t need to feign interest and appreciation just bc it’s hanging in a museum!!”.

    And then it happened to me. The class of 10-15 students bled through the gate and just kept spreading through the grounds. I felt totally alone and like maybe I just didn’t “get it”, and then I noticed the sidewalks. Hunks of raw cement bedazzled with mirrors, sparkling pieces of glass, metal and plastic objects, tools, pieces of everything. That sidewalk drew me into the Garden and it was as if the real world disappeared and was no longer of any importance.

    I was THERE, as though Mr. Finster were standing near me, speaking to me in delicate tones. I felt like he just kept reminding me that the place was okay, that I was okay, that the world and my life was okay.

    At first I was taken aback by the raw, simplistic drawings and paintings covering every surface of every structure that seemed to SHOUT religious rhetoric at me. I started to feel uncomfortable and as though maybe they were speaking directly to me? I have never been a religious person and I have CERTAINLY done my fair share of sinning. I was almost afraid that the Devil himself and his hoards of servants might grab me from behind some gnarled mess of vines and mountains of spare parts.

    But as I continued deeper and deeper into Howard’s world as quickly as my fear set in it dissappeared. My initial sense of calm and awareness returned. I recall that moment so clearly, even now. I was looking at my own reflection reflected back and forth over and over until it was almost unrecognizable.

    I was standing before a small white building that felt almost like sacred ground- like a church. The inside was wallpapered in small to medium sized mirrors of all shapes. There were even shards of broken mirrors affixed to every wall, the ceiling, every available surface. Each mirror revealed to me a slightly different image and version or flavor of myself. Some of them were difficult to look at, others were very familiar and comforting.

    It felt as though something had moved through and into me. Despite my discomfort with the biblical dogma being shoved in my face, I connected on a spiritual level with something or someone. I don’t know that I can speak to what it was exactly- Howard Finster, a spirit of some sort, perhaps God, or maybe some intangible part of myself? I really don’t know.

    I DO know that I have been to so many different churches I can’t count them anymore but I have only had a handful of religious experiences in my life. None of these happened in or as a result of a church or preacher or pastor. They were all personal awakenings when I suddenly saw myself and my life a little more clearly and I felt at peace with all of it.

    I think people seek these kinds experiences on nearly a daily basis. Some find God or who/what-ever via attending church every Sunday or Wednesday or both. But I think what Howard gave us was a place of worship disconnected from any other distraction, judgement, rule, or anything. Paradise Gardens is a place where the outside world is completely suffocated and shut out. It is a place where anyone; albeit, EVERYONE can commune with themselves and whatever spiritual thing guides and moves them. Yes, Mr. Finster did; in fact, give the world a place to be closer to their God and a place to receive a spiritual message and reflect.

    I still don’t go to church, I still don’t really prescribe to a particular religion or practice. But I often reflect on my first trip to Paradise Gardens. It reminds me to maintain balance and perspective in my life. It helps me understand that those silly gawkers at a museum might actually being having an experience similar to mine. It opened my eyes to see beyond my classical training in art and art history.

    The trip to Summerville that morning had been a boisterous and noisy one. That afternoon as we loaded back onto the bus, no one said a word. It was as though each person was still trying to process their individual experience but could not put it into words. In fact, we all hardly spoke on the entire ride home. The only thing I remember being said were things like “Did you see the ___?” or “Did you make it to the ____??”. The questions were always met with an amazed “Yes!!!……..”.

    To this day, i have never seen a busload of high school students respond that way to anything or anyone. I have returned to Paradise Gardens several times over the last 15 or 16 years to remind myself and to share it with others. I haven’t walked out with anyone (anyone with OR without an awareness and appreciation for art) who hasn’t felt SOMETHING there.

    Mr. Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens is a special and sacred place that I want to see maintained for as long as possible. I had the opportunity on 3 occasions to meet and speak to Mr. Finster. I was never able to get up my gall to approach him, let alone actually SPEAK to him. He will remain forever in my memory as someone who never met me; but who KNEW me somehow. He seemed to know MOST people somehow, but I feel as though I shared a special one-on-one relationship with him through his art.

    And because of his art, people with continue to know him as I have.

  4. Bella | July 25, 2012 at 6:58 am

    This one is definitely on my bucket list. I can’t wait to go and soak my imaginations of what Mr Finster is trying to convey to us through all of these that he had left.

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