Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 8, No. 4, 2009
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
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Bernard Dubé
Diane Gordon
Sylvain Richard
David Solway
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Emanuel Pordes
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Emanuel Pordes
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Les Cosgrove
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Bernard Dubé
Remigio Valdes de Hoyos
Mylène Gervais
Christina Coleman
Laura Hollick
Louise Jalbert
Rosemary Scanlon
Manitoba Art
The Gambaroffs
Francine Hébert
Marcel Dubois
Ruben Cukier
Raka B. Saha
Purivs Young
William Kinnis & Dominique Tremblay
Gudrun Vera Hjartardottir
Gee's Bend Quilt Collective
Magie Dominic
Ryan McLelland
John Gordon
William Noguera
Manita Shine
Ken Matsumoto
Amy Bernays
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

the paradise gardens of



Art environments are cutting-edge forums today for contemporary artists and viewed by many as something new and revolutionary. A trip to the Southeastern United States, specifically through Georgia and Alabama, pokes a hole in this theory by presenting art environments along the roads, also known as yard art, which has been around for more than half a century if not longer.

Summerville, Georgia is a tiny town two hours northwest of Atlanta and home to Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens. This 4-acre environment includes freestanding sculptures, meandering mosaic walkways, a spectacular chapel, a building made of glass bottles, biblical messages and a tremendous sense of place and history.

Howard Finster, a Baptist preacher, was born in Valley Head, Alabama on December 2, 1916. Before his death in October 2001, at the age of 85, his oeuvre included more than 46,000 paintings in addition to Paradise Gardens’ buildings, sculptures and mixed media works. His wife Pauline, with whom he raised 5 children, survives Howard but does not, and has never, shared in his desire for public attention.

The Art World has anointed Finster with many labels including Folk Artist, Outsider Artist and Naïve Artist. The one moniker that is most apt is Visionary Artist, the only genre in this group that does not include derogatory allusions to the artist’s mental state, level of education or race. This is a subject that rankles the soul of the liberal thinker and one that is so broad of scope that it calls for an essay of its own. In short, Anglo males of European descent are known simply as artists -- perhaps with a modifying word that links them to a particular school of thought and style. Women are always referred to as female artists with little regard to genre and formal or informal training. Those who do not fit neatly into one of the aforementioned groups are most often categorized by a variety of attributes, most of which are outside their control -- such as race, access to formal training and education, place of birth, choice of neighbourhood.

Visionary Art is defined as the attempted or purported transcendence the physical realm through a wider lens of awareness with an emphasis on spiritual or mystical subject matter. According to Finster, he had his first vision at the age of three. His deceased sister, Abbie Rose, appeared to him and told him that he would be a “man of visions.” This first played out in the form of country preacher -- Finster was “born again” at a Baptist revival at the age of 13 when his years of formal education had come to an end and he began preaching at the age of 16. His career as a full-time pastor started in 1940 at Rock Bridge Baptist Church, he then led the parish at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Fort Payne (Alabama).

As lore has it, his epiphany came in 1976 when he realized that by Sunday evening his followers had forgotten his sermon but they didn’t forget his art. Not wanting to forfeit his avocation as a man of god, he preached through his art. This is not a unique vision but one shared by artists of many genres. George Balanchine, renowned choreographer and creator of New York City Ballet, once said, “God creates, I do not create.”

Colourful, detailed and painted on a flat plane without perspective, Finster’s paintings are covered with words and Bible verses. He felt people would absorb the scripture “better” that way.

Finster was known to have stated, “Christians were not supposed to be famous, they were supposed to be servants of God.” However, in serving God through his art, Finster achieved an unrivaled level of fame for a Visionary Artist. He was profiled in Esquire Magazine in 1975 by a reporter (whose name we could not track down) who dubbed Finster’s environment Paradise Gardens. He appeared on the Johnny Carson show in 1983 and has a league of followers that continue to create in his style and support the restoration of Paradise Gardens today. An R.E.M. video was filmed at the Gardens and his cover art for a Talking Heads album garnered awards and accolades. In addition to many books about Finster, one of which he co-authored, there are YouTube videos featuring the Garden and well-worth viewing.

In the late 1940s, Finster began building his first art environment in Trion, Georgia. His desire to collect “one of everything man made,” and his near obsessive interest in perpetual motion co-joined with nature resulted in an on-site exhibit entitled, “Inventions of Mankind.” It was a celebration of mankind through mechanical inventions and a tribute to “God’s creations.” Running out of land, he moved to Summerville in 1961 and began creating anew. Finster was known as a man who did not sleep; he “napped and worked.”

Drive up to Paradise Gardens and the first glimpse is overwhelming. Whitney Nave Jones, an artist who owns the Paradise Gardens Gallery, beckons one inside and offers visitors an overview. If one is lucky enough to be there on a day when Tommy Littleton (Chairman of Paradise Gardens Park and Museum, Inc. and a miniature artist) is there you will experience a curated tour from this Kris Kristofferson look-alike (from the rocker’s younger days) that feels as if Howard (as Littleton calls him) is striding alongside you.

The move to Summerville brought a job at the local mill but Finster soon opened a bicycle repair shop on his property. For 25 years he contributed a weekly column to the Summerville News.

In 2005, Finster’s daughter Beverly donated Paradise Gardens to a non-profit organization for the restoration and preservation of the Gardens and Finster’s legacy. The project is called Paradise Redemption and work accomplished to date has enabled the Gardens to re-open to the public. The so-called ‘masterpiece’ of Finster’s art environment is the World’s Folk Art Church, not yet open to the public.

On a recent visit, and as a member of the media, I was permitted a sneak peek inside the chapel. Up the winding stairs, bumping my head despite Tommy Littleton’s warning, it was staggering to see from the inside out what Finster had created as a tribute to his vision of the Kingdom of Heaven where all the world will unite. On the main floor of the Chapel a wooden bookcase holds jars of preserves of every imaginable kind put up by Finster -- living proof that a man and not an imaginary creature inhabited this space.

While the chapel is indeed extraordinary, what captured my attention were the two “towers,” one entitled the Hubcap Tower, which sprouted a massive rose bush, and the other, The Bicycle Tower, constructed of bicycle and appliance parts.The petite Bottle House was created from original 2-liter glass Coca-Cola bottles and interspersed with cobalt blue Milk of Magnesia bottles, allowing the sun to bounce off the glass as well as off the nearby house paneled with mirrors. There’s also The Picture House, which chronicles his travels through words and postcards. A Meditation Room is filled with church pews where Finster often delivered sermons in front of a white coffin, somehow not unnerving within the scope of the Gardens. Live goats are on hand to keep the ever-present Kudzu from overtaking the Gardens.

“Pauline’s House” built on the property was constructed as an inducement for Finster’s wife to be happy in the place he loved so much--– though they never inhabited it. Littleton says the plans are to turn it into a B&B. The mouth of an upraised, covered bridge begins at this house and wanders through the Garden (Finster even built a wheel-chair accessible ramp long beforethe ADA even thought of this as a requirement in public spaces). Walking through the bridge one see’s paintings by other artists -- including Purvis Young who visited with Finster) and many by Finster himself. The windows from the Bridge provide an all-encompassing view of the Gardens.

Interested in the way people related to icons, many of Finster’s paintings include Elvis and George Washington, among others. All were painted with dark hair, to keep the subjects youthful, including the self-portraits where Finster was always depicted as Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He was a man of enormous talent and versatility. He played the banjo, wrote songs, lectured, had a major exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta and made music boxes that he sold off the hood of his car at flea markets. There aren’t enough words to capture the depth and breadth ofFinster but a trip to Paradise Gardens opens up his world and encourages guests to seek out and gobble up the proliferation of information available.

The perfect way to describe Finster’s art is from his own words inscribed in the Garden. “I took the pieces you threw away and I put them together by Night and Day. Washed by Rain and Dried by Sun A Million Pieces All in One.”

For public hours, directions, information about the restoration and the artist visit

Also by Dindy Yokel:
The Art of Purvis Young

Quilts and Quips




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