The Rev. Howard Finster was born Dec. 2, 1916, in Valley Head, Alabama, and died Oct. 22, 2001, in Summerville, GA, where he created with boundless energy and consuming focus during the inspired winter of his life.
This self-proclaimed “Man of Visions” was one of the best-known folk artists of the late 20th century. He was compelled to paint presidents, inventors, biblical figures and pop culture icons, eventually becoming a celebrity himself.
He worked up album covers for R.E.M., Talking Heads and other bands, appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” and welcomed a steady stream of people (from regular folks to the famous, such as artist Keith Haring) who made the pilgrimage to his roadside attraction/folk art environment, Paradise Garden.
On property just outside Summerville, he created this tribute to the inventions of mankind. But his captive audience couldn’t miss how the crafty retired Baptist preacher used his art and endless accompanying text to try to save souls.
In Jonathan Williams’ book “Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey,” the loquacious Finster explained Paradise Garden’s genesis:
“So it come to me to build a paradise and decorate it with the Bible. I went to the dump and started picking up glass and molding brick. I just saved everything but money. The Lord’d give me a picture [at] night what to do the next day… When I started on it, I wasn’t expecting to excite the world… I wanted to put every verse in the Bible in this park. It’s about two acres. I write what I feel God’s word says… If I have to write it on a refrigerator or down on the walk out of marbles, I write it.”
Now operated and being restored by the nonprofit Paradise Garden Foundation, the 2.5-acre environment continues to attract visitors with its found-object sculptures, paintings, signs and its signature structure, the towering World’s Folk Art Church.
Finster, who had held down many pulpits in Northeast Alabama and Northwest Georgia, began his artistic career in full in 1976 when a heavenly voice told him to create “sacred art.” He abandoned his bicycle repair shop and began to produce thousands of paintings, numbered and dated, most with his trademark religious messages.
Over his 25-year sacred art career, Finster managed to create 46,991 numbered works — not counting unnumbered early originals, print multiples and millions of album cover copies.
Though Paradise Garden is his greatest legacy, he also is remembered as an inspiration by generations of self-taught makers. In summer 2019, Main Street Gallery mounted an exhibition featuring 20 of them, “Finster Forward: Art by Howard Finster and the Finster Fest Artists He Inspired.”
Note: There is no additional charge for shipping/handling inside the continental U.S., except where noted on individual pieces of artwork. Tax is charged to Georgia buyers only.