Paradise in Summerville…Howard Finster’s Paradise
written by MARTY STEINER | photography by MJNOVOTNY PHOTOGRAPHY
PARADISE IS VARIOUSLY DEFINED AS “HEAVEN, the final abode of the righteous” and, in some references, the Garden of Eden. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers “a very beautiful, pleasant or peaceful place that seems to be perfect” while Biblical scholars point to Old Testament references that speak of a walled garden as “paradise” and that the words from the Cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise,” expand on this Old Testament understanding.
But Paradise, in this instance, is located in Summerville, a small town in northwest Georgia, and the messenger is Howard Finster, a prolific visionary and self-taught folk artist.
Folk artists typically record what they have seen or personally experienced, using the materials at hand, including house paint, markers and even mud mixed with paint. These mediums are then applied to discarded paper, cardboard, metal, bottles and more. Most are self-taught and fall outside the various styles, movements or “schools” of art. Often these artists simply create images reflecting their visions, without the influence of formal art training.
Outsider art environmental gardens, or “visionary environments,” are a worldwide phenomenon within the folk art genre. There are dozens of examples of untrained artists transforming their surroundings into art-filled environments. These frequently, like Paradise Garden, include works constructed from found or cast-off objects. The Magic Garden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was a vacant lot “beautified” by an artist using found bottles and other debris with messages throughout. Watts Towers in Los Angeles is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and consists of 17 towers constructed from steel pipe and decorated with found objects. The subjects of many environmental gardens are purely rooted in fantasy, almost always a single artist’s expression and, as at Paradise Garden, a faith-focused or “visionary” theme.
Examples in the Southeast include St. EOM’s (Eddie Owens Martin) 7-acre Pasaquan near Buena Vista, Georgia; Benedictine Brother Joseph Zoettl’s Ave Maria Grotto near Cullman, Alabama and Joe Minter’s African Village in America in Birmingham. What differentiates each from the other is the motivation by different forces and the underlying themes. Pasaquan was inspired by mystical thoughts and presents psychedelically painted faux pre-Columbian temples, totems and painted concrete walks and walls. Zoettl’s Grotto at the Benedictine St. Bernard Abbey contains miniature reproductions of 125 significant religious structures from around the world. Minter’s site, located between two segregated cemeteries, tells the history of African-Americans using assemblages constructed of found items.
Within this folk art genre are those visionary artists who were divinely inspired to spread spiritual messages through their art. Howard Finster’s main body of work — more than 40,000 items — carries scriptural passages or interpretations of scripture coupled with simple images. Growing up with a dozen siblings in a rural Baptist family near Valley Head, Alabama in the early 1900’s, Finster, like many boys, collected objects found during his daily adventures and displayed them, as much for his own pleasure as for the eyes of others, in little “mini-museums.” During family travels, he often encountered garden-like displays along the road. Later in life as a traveling tent revival preacher, Finster again saw a number of roadside gardens composed of creations made from found objects. Some of these sites also included inspired religious messages in their imagery or on posted signs.
Finster set about building his first garden in the Trion, Georgia area creating miniature churches and “heavenly mansions.” He intended to construct monuments to important inventions in honor of mankind’s inventive nature. This, in the late 1940s and 50s, satisfied his urge to create with collected items and was well received by his family, friends and church members. He eventually added a pigeon flock and a duck pond and then ran out of space.
In 1961, he and his family moved to the current site of Paradise Garden, which was then a swampy four acres. He began to fill the marshes and started his Plant Farm Museum. In addition to pastoring, he repaired bicycles, small engines and lawnmowers. Using found objects and cast off plywood, he created various structures including a bicycle tower and another structure made of lawnmower parts. Others would include the Bible House, the Mirror House, the Hubcap Tower and Machine Gun Nest. His crowning achievement, the wedding cake-like, five-story tiered World’s Folk Art Chapel would eventually be built atop the small church purchased in 1982 on the adjacent property. All of this is now Paradise Garden.
The catalyst for Howard’s art came in 1975 while he was repairing and repainting a bicycle at his home. Already 60 years of age, he had never painted anything other than his house and the bicycles that he had worked on. One day, Howard believed he saw the image of a human face on his paint-smudged finger. A warm feeling came over him and he heard God command him to “paint sacred art.” He did so on everything from traditional canvas and artist board, to plywood cutouts, bottles, clock-cases and more. Many of his forms were iconic and easily recognized, such as Coca Cola bottle shapes, Elvis Presley, George Washington, Ronald Reagan and angels in flight. Although the forms were repeated, each carries a unique scriptural message.
That same year, in 1975, Esquire published an article about self-taught artists and included Finster’s newly named Paradise Garden. This article led to his first one-man exhibition, a feature on an Atlanta television station and spurred collaboration with rock groups R.E.M. and Talking Heads. The rock group R.E.M. filmed their debut single at Paradise Garden in 1983.
Much of Howard’s life had been spiritually directed. As early as the age of 3, he said he’d had a vision of his deceased sister telling him he would be a “man of visions.” At 6 years old, he was “born again,” and as a teenager, he preached at rural Baptist revivals until he became a full-time pastor. In the case of Howard Finster, the creation of the garden was largely by divine inspiration.
The High Museum of Art, with the largest known publicly held Finster collection, has a stated mission to raise awareness about Paradise Garden. Katherine Jentleson, as the High’s new Merrie and Dan Boone Folk and Self Taught Art Curator since September 2015, has taken many groups of Atlantans to visit what she calls, “the treasure which is in our backyard.” Even after a number of visits, she still finds Paradise Garden a place of “absolute wonder.”
Susan Crawley, who was the first folk art curator of a major American art museum during her tenure at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, explains the nearly divine intervention of the High in preserving Paradise Garden. “In the 1990’s, when objects were disappearing from the Garden without compensation, Howard was pleased when a few of his iconic pieces were purchased and went into the High’s new folk art collection. The High has continued to support the efforts of the Garden through its changes of ownership including the current Chattooga County and Paradise Garden Foundation partner arrangement.”
These early acquisitions are displayed at the High in a contextual manner that suggests their original placement in Paradise Garden. The impact of the Garden extends beyond just being a collection of one man’s inspired art, expressing both his faith and his calling to spread the Gospel. Some may see beauty in almost anything, while Finster saw God’s word in everything.
Many couples were married in the Garden by Finster himself. Although married elsewhere, Steve and Amy Slotin visited the Garden as the first stop on their honeymoon 25 years ago. Today, the Slotins operate Slotin Folk Art Auctions in Buford, arguably the most important auction source of folk and outsider art including many Finster works. “Paradise Garden is really a national treasure and to have it right in our backyard makes it even more special,” said Amy Slotin.
What should a visitor expect at Paradise Garden? To some, it is simply an assortment of folk art expression by a 20th-century giant in both the American and worldwide folk art genre. This includes concrete structures with imbedded objects, large mural paintings and a variety of structures combining found objects. Others may find reflection in the scriptures and Finster’s applications of these scriptures to each of us. And many will find perhaps only amusement. Regardless, the work of Howard Finster in the Garden will resonate with everyone.
Some years ago a travel writer upset folk art aficionados by comparing some folk art at an auction to his pre-schooler’s “refrigerator” art. He inadvertently made the important point that children often understand and appreciate folk art, especially Finster’s simple and colorful forms. Paradise Garden is definitely a child’s art paradise.
“We often miss interesting places because they are close to home and we take them for granted, but Paradise Garden is too special not to visit time and time again,” offered Tom Scanlin, a noted Finster collector. “I discover new and fascinating things there on every trip. Paradise Garden is where the full creative genius of Howard Finster, both figuratively and literally, blossomed. Howard put his heart and soul into this space.”
With more than 30 years of working with and studying Howard Finster, Lehigh University’s Norman Girardot, author of “Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger From Another World,” reflected on the continuing interest in Paradise Garden. “The Garden, and especially the five-story World’s Folk Art Church, echoes Howard’s ‘I never met a person I didn’t love!’” Go, see, enjoy and be loved.