Graffiti scars the restroom walls at the new Paradise Garden Visitor Center, which greets guests to the Rev. Howard Finster’s otherworldly art creation.
This, despite the fact that the center, which includes a small museum and gift shop, was dedicated just last Sunday at the edge of the 2.5-acre garden that Finster carved out of swamp muck to glory in God’s grace and to celebrate the inventions of mankind.
It turns out, though, that the graffiti was done quite purposefully, conveying quotes from the minister-turned-artist who never met a blank surface that couldn’t be improved by one of his signature hand-scrawled evangelical messages.
“My work is scrubby. It’s bad, nasty art. But it’s telling something,” reads one Finster quote adorning the restroom wall. “You don’t have to be a perfect artist to work in art.”
Bad? No. Nasty? Never.
A natural-born showman prone to overstatement, Finster was, in fact, perfect at conveying infinite variations on his core message: Find God, get saved.
He had led a dozen small rural churches for more than three decades when he resigned from the final one in 1965 because only one member at a prayer meeting could remember his morning sermon’s topic. Then, working in his bicycle repair shop at Paradise Garden in 1976, the handyman had a vision: a face in a dab of paint commanded him, “Paint sacred art.”
People paid attention to the messages on his painted boards and cut out figures, which encouraged Finster to produce them tirelessly and to plow the proceeds back into Paradise Garden. By the time he died in 2001 at age 84, he had completed more than 47,000 preaching pieces, including album covers for REM and Talking Heads, which carried the Gospel According to Howard to millions presumably in need of salvation.
The 2,500-square-foot visitor center merges Finster’s studio-gallery, where he painted and sold barely dry pieces and welcomed fans to northwest Georgia, to a towering new structure behind it. It’s the focal point of an ongoing revitalization effort by the nonprofit Paradise Garden Foundation, underway since Chattooga County purchased the art environment, which had been in decline even before Finster’s death, in 2001.
Inside is a patchwork quilt of displays — art, artifacts, memorabilia and video — that weave the unlikely story of the eccentric self-described “Messenger From God.” This “Stranger From Another World,” as he also referred to himself, emerged from one of Georgia’s most remote and poorest corners to become a sensation who appeared and even played banjo on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. A portion of that odd and funny meeting plays in a loop along with interviews by sometimes amused, sometimes bemused TV reporters in the multimedia room.
The exhibits include autographed photos from admirers including George Wallace (“To my friend Rev. Finster, God bless you”); an assemblage of rusted bicycle gears; some of the countless things Finster collected, such as a deteriorating rattlesnake in a jar; typed letters of appreciation from Carson, Nancy Reagan and REM lead singer Michael Stipe; and a slew of yellowing magazine and newspaper clippings bestowing the attention that Finster so relished.
On a framed 1986 story headlined “The Fundamentalist Uses Painting, Plants to Spread the Word,” Finster scribbled in black marker, “Howard Finster on Front Page of Wall Street Journal … Thanks!”
In his keynote speech at the dedication, Norman Girardot, a retired Lehigh University religion professor who is completing a book due out next year titled “Envisioning Howard Finster: The Myth and Meaning of a Stranger From Another World,” acknowledged the artist remains elusive.
“Even after almost 30 years of reflection, I cannot pretend to have fully figured out Howard Finster,” Girardot said. “His protean charisma, incredible creativity and prolific accomplishments resist any easy interpretive formula …
“What is certain is that he really did know how to fly and soar, turning creative cartwheels and flitting and fluttering in the heavens.”
Open for self-guided tours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays. $5; $3 seniors; $2 students. Group tours available with advance reservation. Corner of Rena and North Lewis streets, Pennville. 706-808-0800, www.paradisegardenfoundation.org.
Finster expected to top auction bidding
When two Howard Finster paintings fetched $37,500 and $36,000 at a Slotin Folk Art Auction in Buford in April, it underlined that there is a bull market for his early, one-of-a-kind works.
So small surprise that a vintage Finster fills the cover of the catalog for the next Slotin auction, to be held Nov. 9-10 at Historic Buford Hall, and that it is estimated to bring the highest value among the 1,116 lots that will tempt bidders in person, by phone and over the Internet.
“Visions of Mary’s Angel,” a rare 4-foot-square work from 1987, is expected to draw bids between $25,000 and $35,000 (not counting a 20 percent buyer’s premium and taxes) but could eclipse that. It’s one of 13 Finster works on the block.
View the pieces at www.slotinfolkart.com.