Published: August 9, 2010
Former bicycle repairman and preacher-turned-artist, the Reverend Howard Finster (1916′001) was truly one of a kind. A minister in paint and a self-described “Man of Visions,” this energetic and ambitious self-taught painter created more than 46,000 pieces of art in his effort to spread the word of God.
Believing his mission was to use art to alert people about how to save their souls from the horrors of hell, he referred to himself as “God’s last red light on the planet Earth.” Astutely blending preaching skills, marketing savvy and appealing artwork, Finster became a larger-than-life personality and a national celebrity. Arguably, after Grandma Moses, he is perhaps the best-known American folk artist of the late Twentieth Century.
The saga of Finster’s life and art is comprehensively covered in a welcome and revelatory exhibition, “Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster , ” on view at the Chicago Cultural Center through September 26. Organized by the Krannert Art Museum of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where it opened, and curated by Glenn C. Davies, it covers all phases of the artist’s oeuvre.
Born in rural Alabama, one of 13 children, Finster had six years of schooling before going to work. Growing up in a Baptist town, he learned about salvation and the Ten Commandments through song, rhyme and imagery. At the age of 16, he became a preacher, building several churches and organizing tent revivals.
In the 1940s, as he traveled around the South conducting revival meetings, Finster became interested in the plethora of folksy roadside attractions and other oddities he encountered along highways. These experiences, says curator Davies, “contributed to Finster’s desire to build a roadside park steeped in religion.”
Eventually, Finster married and had five children. Meanwhile, he worked in a cotton mill and repaired bicycles, lawnmowers and TVs. He reportedly gave up formal preaching when he asked one Sunday night how many people remembered his morning sermon †and no one did.
Throughout his prolific career, Finster saw himself as a sacred artist, indefatigably recording his visionary prophesies and biblical lessons. As “God’s junk man,” he salvaged discarded objects and, with passion and imagination, produced vivid expressions of his personal faith.
In the 1960s, responding to God’s command, Finster began to convert a swampy plot of land around his house in Summerville, Ga., 90 miles from Atlanta, into a wonderland of idiosyncratic structures and art-laden objects. His three-acre roadside extravaganza, originally called the Plant Farm Museum but later dubbed Paradise Garden, became the focus of the artist’s life and work. Paradise Garden gained national attention when it was depicted in Fortune magazine in 1975.
The sprawling outdoor display includes a five-story, wedding cake-style World’s Folk Art Chapel, the Finster Folk Art Gallery, whimsical structures made of bottles and rusted bicycle frames, unusual concrete statues and a labyrinth of concrete walkways embedded with glass, junk, tiles and religious sayings. Everywhere there are hand painted signs with biblical verses and Finster’s words of advice and warnings about the wages of sin.
An 8-foot-high concrete shoe bears a verse from Ephesians: “And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.”
Finster once said Paradise Garden was “kinda like the Garden of Eden.” This rock- and junk-encrusted site, sometimes bizarre, often puzzling and always entertaining, became a major state tourist destination.
Finster and his family worked hard to build the park and produce unique wood items in his workshop. “His struggle to provide for his family and their acceptance of his unique ways of expressing himself helped to imbue his work with a heartfelt sincerity,” observes Davies.
In 1975, while painting a refurbished bicycle, Finster noticed that a paint smudge on a finger had created a human face. A voice spoke to him, saying “paint sacred art.” Thus encouraged, at the age of 60 he began to create thousands of sermon-loaded artworks with subjects ranging from historical and cultural characters to fantasy landscapes and futuristic cities.
When it came to saving souls, Finster believed that George Washington could be as effective as John the Baptist.
Most works were meticulously covered with the artist’s hand-lettered words and biblical excerpts, including numerous misspellings and deliberate wordplays. Whether painting in oils or enamel on found objects, plywood, or gourds, or crafting three-dimensional works from found materials, Finster sought to instruct viewers on religious themes.
With numerous visitors to greet and upkeep of Paradise Garden filling his days, Finster created most of his art at night. He worked with his television blaring, resulting in news formats and TV design techniques, such as crawls, infiltrating his art. Long before others, says Davies, “Finster was layering news stories, images, talking heads and important side bars with decorative, irrelevant snippets of visual and verbal information onto the single screen of his painted surface.”
Using stern words and graphic images, Finster drove home his messages. In “The Super Powers,” two fantastical black beasts confront each other, with a stream of human figures marching between them, surrounded by Finster’s hand-lettered words, such as “THE WHOLE WORLD IS LIVING BETWEEN TWO GREAT SUPER POWERS. A BIT OF FEAR IS ON ALL PEOPLE TAKING PEACE FROM THE EARTH AS WAS SAID TO COME BY THE BIBLE THE LAST OF THE PROPHECIES IS NOW COMING TO PASS.”
In “Shortest Message Up.Or.Down,” tiny figures emerging from “EARTH IN SPACE” ascend to heaven accompanied by words like “NO DEATH,” “LIFE ETURNAL” and “PEACE,” while those tumbling to hell are surrounded by warnings of “FIRE,” “SCREAMS” and “NO COLD COKES.” Along the sides of the abyss into which they tumble are “Finsterisms”: “PEOPLE GO OVER THE BIBLE TO HELL” and “THEY GO OVER THE CHURCH AND THE PREACHERS TO GET TO HELL.”
Told in a vision to “paint 5,000 works,” Finster completed each piece with a sequential number, often noting the exact time of day or night that the work was finished. He used bright tractor enamel, which had served him well on his tractor. Whether depicting a blue “Floating Angel,” or a patron’s wife as a flying angel in red in “Matthew Arient’s Angel,” the enamel adds a vibrant hue to Finster’s images. The bright red “Seven Devils,” 1981, stand out against a dark background, accompanied by such tags as “I TELL THEM THERE IS NO HELL AND A FEW BELIEVE IT.”
Finster’s vivid colors add to the effect of the lack of perspective in his flat picture planes. In “Caught in the Devil’s Vice, 1983,” the flattened woman in blue stands out against the vivid dark red vise, festooned with warnings about “CRAVING FUN AND PUBLICITY,” “BEING IDLE” and “STAYED OUT OF CHURCH.”
Finster shared the environmental concerns that swept the nation in the 1970s. “We Love the Redwood Forests,” 1977, features an enormous, populated boot, next to a huge axe, which is next to a large tree stump. Summing up the many messages in this expansive scene is Finster’s warning that “THE GOD GIVEN REDWOOD SHALL PERISH UNLESS YOU TURN TO GOD.”
Like many Georgians, Finster was a big fan of Coca Cola, as reflected in “Mr Coke,” a signature bottle crowded with inverted heads (“SOME FOLKS WOULD STAND ON THEIR HEADS FOR A COLD COCA COLA”), small figures toasting the drink and a message that “COKES WOULD SELL WITHOUT ANY ADVERTING.”
In the 1970s, Finster attracted the interest of art dealers Peter Camp and then Phyllis Kind, who put him on the national art-world map. The Library of Congress commissioned four paintings in 1977, and he was chosen to paint an Easter egg for the annual Easter Egg Hunt at the White House. In 1984 he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.
To convey his visions to broader audiences, Finster designed record album covers for rock groups, gave interviews and made films and famously appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. As he became a compelling public personality and increasing celebrity, he never lost sight of his mission to spread the word of God.
The cottage industry that surrounded Finster toward the end of his life ended up defining him, not always to his benefit. Although he created some fine works in his final years and remained faithful to his mission of making sacred art, the quality of much of his output suffered.
Sensing that he would leave a mixed legacy, Finster predicted that “There will be rumors and writing about me probably until Jesus comes back. There will be stories about my being a fake, like there were about Noah.”
Concerning his work, Finster modestly observed that “God brought these visions upon me, and I have these visions and have to tell ’em to somebody, and this world is all I got to tell ’em to. My work has a spirit in it. I write it in a spirit and people read it in a spirit and that’s the spirit that unifies all humans.”
Nearly a decade after his death, there is little consensus about Finster’s reputation. Curator Davies may have it about right when he observes, “Widely known and misunderstood, his position in the art world remains polarized †suspended somewhere between awe for his tireless, faith-driven creativity and reluctance to accept his place in the pantheon of contemporary art.”
This in-depth exhibition offers an opportunity for a reevaluation of Finster’s output and a fresh opportunity to gauge his place in the history of American art. It surely suggests that whatever his shortcomings, Howard Finster deserves a special niche for his earnest, religion-themed life and work.
The 153-page catalog, crammed with illustrations of Finster’s life, art and Paradise Garden, is edited by curator Davies, with essays by three Finster experts. It is published by Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion.
After closing in Chicago, “Stranger” travels to Julie Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University (December 11⁍arch 12); Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Fla. (April 22⁁ugust 28, 2011), and Tennessee State Museum, Nashville (November 10-January 15, 2012).
The Chicago Cultural Center is at 78 East Washington Street. For information, http://www.chicagoculturalcenter.org or 312-744-6630.
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