Feature: Vision Vortex

howard

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The prolific works of one of America’s most famous folk artists consist of buildings, sculptures, paintings and more, all constructed of cast-off materials and on display in a garden that feels like another world.

by KATHRYNE MCDORMAN

One of my friend Gregg;s wry observations about life in our times – and believe me, he is full of them – is that any shed, built at a bit of distance from an otherwise tidy home, represents “some poor sucker’s dream gone bad.”  When pressed about his exact meaning, he gives me a baleful glance and sighs deeply, refusing to elaborate.

After years of pondering this, I think I know what he means when I consider the sheds I have seen…filled with old exercise equipment, rusting tools, art supplies and, in Gregg’s case, scraps of wood and leather he dreams of shaping into furniture or flooring or picture frames. Gregg is a a man who turned old muffler pipes into an attractive dining room suite, so I can question neither his authority nor the sincerity of his claims.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Seriously, this is one sucker who knows what he is talking about. On that level, Gregg would have understood Howard Finster intuitively. Finster’s religious visions would have confounded Gregg, but the urge to create something from scraps of cast-off items would speak to him.

Described in simple terms, Howard Finster’s life might appear to have been rather ordinary. Born at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Valley Head, Ala., in 1916, he died in 2001 on the other side of that same mountain at age 84. He spent his life doing a bit of millwork, a bit of bicycle repair work and so forth – he declared he mastered 22 different trades – and, after feeling “the call” at age 13, preaching at two small Baptist churches.

His life and story, however, become quite extraordinary when we hear about his visions and resulting actions. He said God spoke to him first at the age of 3, and, 57 years later, God commanded him to turn what had been a hobby, collecting stray items and painting secular and religious figures on them, into a full-time service. According to Finster, God even gave him a specific number of creations He required: 5,000.

Thereafter, Finster kept a strict count of all he painted and shaped.

By that count, he created 48,000 pieces consisting of paintings, buildings, sculptures and mosaics.  Images of Elvis and Lincoln, aliens and war heroes reside comfortably among John the Baptist, angels demons and various other less-identifiable faces. When his works outgrew a site originally called the Plant Farm Museum and located just outside Summerville, Ga., Finster purchased four additional acres. This place that he loved and nurtured came to be known as Finster’s Paradise Garden.

As he found his eye for creating images, Finster enthusiastically encouraged others to do the same. As he described it:

My work is scrubby,
It’s bad, nasty art
But it’s telling you something
You don’t have to be a perfect artist
To work in art.

Today, Paradise Garden’s staff delights in displaying not only Finster’s work, but hundreds of pieces by  hose whom Finster emboldened to follow their own visions.

Upon entering the garden, there is a distinct feeling of going down the rabbit hole with  Alice. Everywhere one looks there are eccentrically shaped buildings, large murals of faces with knowing eyes and jumbles of every kind of bicycle and machine part shaped into iconic towers. The Visitors’ Center where Finster used to greet the curious is an old house, formerly without electricity and water. It is now refitted as an attractive information center and gift shop.

Our guide, Kathy Berry, shares her enthusiasm and pride that the gardens and the gallery that was added to the center were chosen among nine sites to display a traveling exhibit of outstanding Georgia artists. Films of interviews with Finster telling his story, curators speaking to the significance of the work and narratives of the restoration of the garden play continuously. Although Berry did not know Finster, her face lights up recounting anecdotes passed on to her by visitors who did. “That way,” she says, “I come to know him.”

Finster’s work has been called “folk art” or “outsider art.” This refers to work produced by self-taught artists who tend to create from some private inspiration or obsession and who use all sorts of non-traditional materials. For many, the art seems unsophisticated, simple even, but that is also its strength. Lacking any claim to, or knowledge of, conventional artistic techniques, the art is a pure pouring forth from the artist to the object. Folk art has become an attractive commodity for art
collectors and even the most discerning museums in the country.

Finster is one of the most well known folk artists of the 20th century. The High Museum in Atlanta has
bought several of Finster’s works, as has the Smithsonian.

One critic called him “the Andy Warhol of the South.” Few other folk artists have been written about in the The Wall Street Journal or have designed album covers for the likes of R.E. M. and the Talking Heads. Finster even made an appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and R.E.M. filmed the video for “Radio Free Europe” in Paradise Garden in 1983.

Wandering toward the gardens, we find a 1970s Cadillac covered with Finster’s portraits and Bible verses. One of the first “art cars” found in any collection, says Berry, it was Finster’s transportation to a 1980 symposium in North Carolina, where he was a guest of Wake Forest University. Finster explained it was “cheaper and faster than a Greyhound bus.”

We enter a structure that looks like two long hallways joined in an L shape. Finster called it “the wheelchair ramp,” and in his time, it was used to bring visitors to the part of the garden at the lowest elevation of the land. Today it is filled with artwork, framed posters recounting Finster’s travels and recognition from the art world, hand-lettered Bible verses and many pieces that Finster inspired others to create. The area is available for group meetings and could also be a wedding venue that would provide a vivid backdrop and life-long memories. Passing down both corridors, we arrive at another part of Finster’s backyard filled with mosaic work and plants.

Sadly, some of the mosaics are cracked and chipped, but those that remain reveal an exuberant artist who loved color and cherished all things that reflected light and motion. It is extraordinary to see mundane pieces of our lives like toilet-tank covers become part of a concrete collage that frames a duck – by the creek bed, of course. Old refrigerators are Finster’s canvases, too, with an image of George Washington appearing beside paintings of rockets heading to space, a jet plane dirigible and parachutes. It is almost as if the first president dreamed the future.

The gardens can leave one with sensory overload, surely, but filled with the delight of discovery. As Michael Sanders, one of the gardeners, says, “I get to come to Paradise every day, and I always see something that I have never seen before.”

There is a quality to Finster that shines through all of his work, no matter how diverse: his sense of joy. It is as if an inspired but rascally little boy filled with genius and artistic vision crawled into a garden and exploded. His extravagant output is filled with humor. To see him on film is to see a brilliant, backwoods preacher “having us on” with a joke, but we are in on the joke. Despite some of the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric in the Bible verses he posts, there is a gentle quality to the man with an irrepressible wink at the viewer. I can imagine him finding it hard to keep a straight face when serious scholars analyzed his work. Oh, he’d bedazzle them with his rapid-fire flood of words, but inside, I suspect, he’d be chuckling. Then he’d pick up his banjo and strike up a tune.

On the day of our visit, the man behind the preservation of the gardens, Jordan Poole, is busy directing volunteers, some from as far away as Atlanta, as they clear undergrowth that is a constant threat to the pathways and gardens. Poole has two degrees in historic preservation and professional experience working at Mount Vernon. Beyond academic qualifications, however, he brings his passion to preserving Finster’s vision of the garden. Most preservationists work at sites respected for generations; few have Poole’s opportunity to develop a site from whole cloth.

Poole grew up in Summerville and had heard of Finster and his garden. Years after Finster died, Poole spearheaded the restoration and preservation of the artist’s garden. He describes his “ah-ha” moment as occurring in Washington when he met an ambassador to the Vatican. When an assistant to the diplomat asked Poole where he was from, Poole responded, “Summerville, Georgia.”

“Oh,” he commented, “That’s where Howard Finster is from!”

As Poole explains it, “you can’t buy roots,” and he knew it was time to return to his home and preserve Finster’s legacy.

His first act was to encourage Chattooga County to buy the land and create the Paradise Garden Foundation to raise money and take responsibility for maintenance of the property. As more people became aware of his efforts, Poole says excitement built in the community, along with hope for economic development in the county, formerly reliant almost exclusively upon textile mills. Chattooga County purchased the property in December 2011, and the foundation was established in January 2012.

Poole foresees the opportunity for the gardens and art in general to revive civic pride. “Thirty-five years ago, Summerville used to be called the mural city of Georgia because so much public art covered town buildings,” he says. “People need to take ownership of Finster’s legacy and promote it.”

Ideas pour forth from Poole in an excited rush. He anticipates building an artist-in-residence program. He envisions Summerville and the garden as a hub for “traditional mountain crafts” because “Lookout Mountain is filled with the most amazing artists.” He has heard of the iconic clothesline art show, Plum Nelly, that closed in 1974 and wants to create something similar near the garden. The buildings and the art of the garden site are a bit too fragile to support large crowds milling about eating and drinking, but nearby Dowdy Park in Summerville features Finster Day, which is held in late May or early June and brings artists, musicians and visitors to town.

Of necessity, Poole is a practical dreamer who spends a good deal of his time overseeing the foundation’s budget, fundraising through grants and gifts and publicizing Paradise Garden. The site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the state of Georgia has recognized its importance, the folk art community cherishes it as a “national folk art site” and local citizens are happy to direct tourists. During our visit, we witness sightseers from Iceland excitedly exploring the buildings.

Howard Finster never became wealthy despite his “shaman-like personality that helped to shape his public persona and increasing celebrity,” we read in the information center. When an interviewer who visited him in the garden asked where all his money from the sale of his art was, Finster responded, “You are looking at my money; you are walking on my money.”

He would prefer to know that his art was continuing to influence lives. Judging by the dedication of the staff at the garden and the interest that this “man of visions” and his art continue to inspire, he should rest easy from his labors; his work is in good hands. I cannot wait to introduce philosopher Gregg to his evangelical brother.[/s2If]