Labeled as a folk artist, Howard Finster called his work “sacred art”. He painted a number of portraits of himself as well as portraits of other famous people, from George Washington to Elvis. In his later work, he inscribed every piece with messages he says he received from God to share with the world.
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not here to live a normal life. I’m sent here on a mission… I came here as a man of visions. The Lord spoke and said: ‘Give up the repair of lawn mowers; Give up the repair of bicycles; Give up the preaching of sermons; Paint my pictures.’ And that’s what I done.” ~ Howard Finster
Howard Finster’s name is synonymous with outsider folk art. Before being tapped for album art by mega-bands such as the Talking Heads and R.E.M., Finster was a preacher and bike repairman who made tramp art-like clock cases. Having his first vision at the age of three, he saw himself in the service of the Lord. In 1961, he turned to spreading the gospel through his art, and originally attempted to create a garden where every edible fruit on earth would be grown.
As time passed, and the concept shifted, Paradise Gardens became as stunning a visionary environment as his individual pieces of art. Finster filled-in a two-and-a-half-acre swamp in northeast Georgia by himself. He then spent years making poetry out of rubbish, weaving his vision amid a jungle of berries and fruit. “One night I asked what I had preached on that morning and everybody forgot my message,” he said. “And that’s why I decided to build my garden, so they can’t forget.” Constructed on a property of several acres, filled with paintings, walkways, a chapel, wildly inventive sculptures and constructions, all designed to attract and hold the attention of his visitors. Paradise Garden became a gathering place for folk art enthusiasts from around the world. It continues to draw visitors today, though much of the garden was purchased in 1994 by Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, which contains the world’s largest collection of Finster’s work.
His painted masonite or plywood cut-outs were colorfully designed, and filled with angels and his preachings. He numbered and dated each piece on the back, adding other personal messages. Howard’s accessibility was renowned, from his sermons at the Gardens, to appearing as the guest speaker at the Elvis Conference in Memphis and the Picasso exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. His artwork graced the album cover of the Talking Heads “Little Creatures,” and he collaborated with Michael Stipe for R.E.M.’s “Reckoning” album cover.
Once he got going, his art was prolific, interesting, visionary and cheap. He built an environment that was stunning in whole and in many of its parts. Finster himself was personally accessible, even if there was an obvious cultural distance as hipster visitors listened politely to his monologues and sermons. Although Finster may have underpriced his work in the early days, it was clear that he knew what he was about. And as perfectly as he represented so much that was attractive in the wave of self-taught artists who found success in the 1980s, he also came to reflect the pitfalls of that success.
As Howard’s artistic and religious zeal found expression, he did not stop at five thousand, however, endless repetition of work fit mostly for gift shops did nothing for the credibility of more ambitious pieces. Quality plummeted across the board. Photocopied text replaced writing on low-end pieces and fade-prone markers replaced paint. He enlisted family members to assist with the mass production. Eventually the best parts of his Garden were sold off. Finster painted until his death in 2001.
Almost as quickly as he established himself as an artist of extraordinary vision, Finster raised the question: What happens when such an artist becomes so thoroughly engaged with the art market? Is he still an outsider?
Original text written for “Howard Finster: Legacy of a Stranger on Earth Returned Home” by Tim Flinn, a self-taught artist and folk potter with Master’s degree in folk art and visual studies at New York University.