This Side of Paradise


Arts & Culture

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.