When Howard Finster died in 2001, his famed Paradise Garden folk art environment slid into a decade-long decline, and the steady flow of tourists visiting this struggling northwest Georgia corner slowed to a trickle.
But the stubborn creative streak that has long run in this quiet, secluded town didn’t die with Georgia’s most famous folk artist.
That should be apparent at Finster Fest 2015, taking place May 30-31 in Dowdy Park at the foot of the Chattooga County seat’s small downtown. Sixty artists, most from these parts, will show rustic-styled art, pottery, sculpture, jewelry and more. With 5,000 visitors expected, other artists hope to detour some of the festival traffic to their nearby studios or storefronts.
Finster Fest is a major fund-raising event of the Paradise Garden Foundation, the non-profit that signed on to reopen the folk artist’s faith-inspired roadside attraction after Chattooga County purchased it in 2011.
In addition to an ambitious multiphase revival of Paradise Garden, the foundation seeks to be a rallying force for the arts in one of the state’s poorest counties, where many makers share Finster’s make-something-out-of-little aesthetic.
In that spirit, we provide a six-stop “Finsterville” tour of places filled with art (folk and other) and funk (antiques and other) that visitors can explore on a day trip.
Visitors to the 2.5-acre site the retired minister-turned-handyman created to glory in God’s grace and celebrate the inventions of mankind encounter an array of unusual structures Finster built, many of which have been recently restored. First they enter a major new building, the Paradise Garden Visitor Center, which was dedicated in late 2013 and includes permanent and changing exhibits, a video room and gift shop.
But the most inspiring feature, especially on a sunny spring day with bird song carrying in the breeze, may be the Mosaic Garden in the garden’s southwest corner. Already in his 60s when he started it, Finster constructed his slice of paradise on swampland. With little more than a shovel and sweat equity, he dredged out canals that encircled the concrete sculptures and sidewalks he crafted, all studded with crockery and car parts, shards of mirror and yard ornaments and countless other reclaimed bits and pieces.
Since the Paradise Garden Foundation took over the site three years ago, workers have recovered most or all of the Mosaic Garden buried under inches of creek silt and leaf mulch. Or so they thought until the latest discovery: a 60-foot-long stream along the property’s edge that had filled in with muck that took two weeks to shovel out.
Now the sound of trickling water sings with the birds.
For a keepsake, the shop offers $20 T-shirts (boasting classic Finster Coca-Cola bottle and angel images), prints (from $3 copies intended for coloring to $700 limited-edition serigraphs and lithographs) and commemorative concrete creations — tiles embedded with rusty hardware Finster collected ($22.50), and crosses ($27-$32) and paperweights ($3) glowing with glass and mirror shards.
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m Sundays. $5, $3 seniors, $2 students. 200 N. Lewis St., Pennville. 706-808-0800, www.paradisegardenfoundation.org.
Turkey Mountain Pottery
What you’ll find: Down a gravel driveway into the woods, several sheds and outbuildings serve as studios and showrooms for Finster Fest artists Tom and Judy Touchstone and their self-taught pursuits: pottery-making, sculpting and painting.
The married couple is best known for its clay work, especially his face jugs of old presidents and Civil War generals and her detailed story jugs (that take nearly a week to hand-build), as well as small figures such as choristers and birds.
Also available: Tom crafts rusty figurative sculpture (everything from a trumpet-blowing angel to turtles on a cattail-shaded pond to Jesus on the cross) from recycled pieces of metal such as truck springs, wagon hubs and plow heads. He got his start as a child fashioning his own toys out of scrap, and today finds some of his best parts by rooting around forgotten homesteads with his metal detector.
Cost: Pottery, $20-$500; sculpture, $50-$1,200 (Tom: “I hardly charge for the art; it’s for the sweat and labor”); paintings, $50-$300.
By appointment only. 390 Turner Road, Armuchee. 615-631-4322. email@example.com.
Maxey Folk Art Gallery
What you’ll find: A cabin jammed with small collectibles including mid-century art pottery, antique lamps and exhumed soda bottles. A newer gallery building is lined floor to ceiling with some 200 original paintings by married self-taught artists June and Rickey Maxey. She favors angels, chickens with sassy personalities and
groups of empowered Southern women as subjects; he prefers abstracts. On for-sale tables, shelves and cabinets carpentered by Rickey, more pottery and other finds are available: depression glass and hammered aluminum dishes, even Mexican volcanic rock and vintage jazz LPs.
Out back: Rickey tends a 3-acre field of daylillies and other flowers for sale.
Finster connection: June recalls childhood visits to her best friend’s house near Paradise Garden. “It was a fairyland to me,” she recalled. “He influenced me by showing how you can make something beautiful out of what you pulled out of the trash.” Borrowing a bit of Finster flair, the Maxeys’ front yard features an assemblage of rusty bikes, old sinks, turbines that spin with the wind, painted food cans hanging from trees and hand-painted signs.
Cost: Paintings, $75-$500. Furniture, $200-$750. Daylilies, $5 per stem; $35-$35 clump.
10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, other days by appointment. 1901 U.S. 27, Gore. 706-978-1014, www.facebook.com/maxeyfolkart1.
What you’ll find: This 3-year-old downtown art and craft boutique, with a name inspired by Finster (who was known as the Man of Visions), is a co-op representing a dozen mainly local artists. Donnie Davis, who works at Paradise Garden and is the artist who has fashioned Finster Fest posters for the last three years, shows his haunting, impressionistic landscapes here. Hal Yeager crafts handsome table and hanging lamps from driftwood dredged from Alabama’s nearby Weiss Lake among other watery spots. And Carl McCleskey and Betsy Scott show sophisticated bronze sculpture of figures and animals.
Cost: From a $15 piece of pottery to an $8,000 bronze, with many paintings in the $100-$200 range.
10 a.m-3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and by appointment. 9978 Commerce St. (U.S. 27), Summerville. 706-506-2404, www.facebook.com/summervillevisiongallery.
Folk America Gallery
What you’ll find: Larry and Jane Schlachter carry works by more than 50 folk artists at their gallery in a converted 1935 red-brick farmhouse that launched in
conjunction with the reopening of Paradise Garden in 2012. The greats of 20th century Southern folk, almost all now deceased, are are well represented, including Mose Tolliver, Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Mary T. Smith.
Finster connection: Larry was a collector and compadre of the folk artist for the last 15 years of his life, and his gallery boasts one of the biggest collections of Finster works for sale in the South. All phases of the artist’s production — from his early wood-crafted doll furniture and clock cases to one-of-a-kind paintings to mass-produced figurative wood cutouts and prints — are displayed.
Cost: Cutout Finster shelf pieces: $400-$800. One-of-a-kind paintings: $2,000-$8,500.
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday on Finster Fest weekend, otherwise by appointment. 12135 U.S. 27, Summerville. 706-857-8095, www.folkamerica.net.
Treasure hunt: A twice-weekly flea market sprawling across an 8-acre gravel lot two miles north of downtown, Trade Days has been providing the thrill of the hunt since 1976. This everything-including-the-kitchen-sink roadside sale started after three dealers who had lost their site in nearby Trion approached Jane Schlachter for
permission to set up in her antique store parking lot. Now as many as 300 dealers from a 100-mile radius show up to sell just about anything you could imagine when the weather is nice for the Tuesday market. Saturdays are less busy because there are more competing markets on weekends.
What you’ll find: Rusty tools, live chickens, fresh eggs in myriad shades including green, just-picked produce, Nintendo games and VHS tapes, rugs and carpet remnants, handmade leather goods, naked Barbie dolls and vintage toys, cleaning supplies, pocket-knives, rods and reels, mid-century furniture, cast iron skillets …
People-watching, too: “All kinds of people come here, from the salt of the earth who barely have a dollar to millionaires,” Schlachter said. “Everyone’s looking for a deal.”
Sunup to around lunchtime, Tuesdays and Saturdays. 12071 U.S. 27, Summerville. 706-857-8095.
Finster Fest 2015
10 a.m.-6 p.m. May 30 and noon-6 p.m. May 31. Free. Dowdy Park, intersection of U.S. 27 and University Street, Summerville. Fifty artists, many self-taught, will show and sell their work. Music both days includes Little Country Giants, Russell Gulley and Muletide & McGizzle. Shuttles will run to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden for free tours. www.finsterfest.com.
Tunes on the Tracks concert
7 p.m. May 30 at Summerville Train Depot, East Washington Street. 7 p.m.: Atomic Boogie. 8 p.m.: the Strange. 9 p.m.: the Bohannons. Free. www.finsterfest.com.
Journey to Paradise
A round-trip charter bus from Atlanta departs 11 a.m. May 30 from Jim Thompson Atlanta Showroom at ADAC, 351 Peachtree Hills Ave., Atlanta. Includes champagne toast kickoff, lunch, art-making and tour at Paradise Garden, Finster Fest, food vouchers and Tunes on the Tracks. Departs for Atlanta at 8:30 p.m. $35 (reserve via www.finsterfest.com).
TWO CLOSE-BY STOPS
Kamama Gallery and Restaurant: A 25-minute drive up Lookout Mountain from Summerville in the resort town of Mentone, this sophisticated yet relaxed spot run by former Atlantans Ray and Sandra Padgett features fine dining and galleries
filled with locally made fine art and crafts and antiques. 5951 Ala. 117, Mentone, Ala. 256-634-3001, www.kamamamentone.com.
Shelby West Pottery: In Adairsville, the town where Atlantans exit I-75 North (exit 306) to get to Summerville, you can find this traditional folk potter. Though he lives in northwest Georgia now, this central Georgia native still pots in the Crawford County style, creating alkaline-glazed stoneware (farm vessels, face jugs, roosters, owls) that he fires in a wood-burning tunnel kiln. 1100 Rush Chapel Road, Adairsville. 770-773-0193, www.facebook.com/pages/Shelby-West-Pottery/140334229363272. Email for appointment: firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTO GALLERY: Find a full gallery of AJC photographer HYOSUB SHIN's photos of "Finsterville" on our paid subscriber site, MyAJC.com.