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Courtesy Paradise Garden Foundation and Finster family

If you weren’t fortunate enough be in Pennville, Ga., at some point between 1961 and 2001, you missed meeting one of the most extraordinary preacher-visionary-artists who has ever lived.

Rev. Howard Finster followed a path unlike any artist on earth, a path he attributed directly to God.

Born in 1915, Finster turned to preaching after seeing “visions” at the age 16. He continued to preach, doing tent revivals and establishing churches, but his creative impulses hung on until he acted on them in a 50-year burst of energy that changed the modern art world forever.

From 1961, Finster built a series of odd structures over three acres of swamp in Pennville. The Plant Farm Museum was to “show the wonderful things of God’s creation, like the Garden of Eden” and began as a tribute to inventors. His buildings, looking variously like Watts Towers, Siberian churches and looping beaver dams, sport names just as colorful: “Bicycle Tower,” the “Machine Gun Nest,” the “Mirror House,” “Bible House” and a huge, five-story “Folk-Art Chapel.”


Courtesy Paradise Garden Foundation and Finster family

From the museum (now called Paradise Gardens), Finster sold his paintings, held interviews and preached to visitors as the world found its way to his door. Almost impossible to classify, his art is a combination of styles: Naïve, folk art, Visionary and perhaps what is known as “Outsider Art.”

Outsider art is a generic term for an artist without formal training who is not even pretending to use traditional techniques. Originally, it had a very negative connotation, as it was used to refer to bizarre art done by psychiatric patients. Today this term refers more to unclassifiable art that defies any norm.

In fact, the enormous popularly of Finster and other artists, such as Beverly Aiken and Martin Ramirez, are possibly part of the reason behind the art world’ s increasing acceptance and even promotion of Outsider and Visionary art over the last 40 years.

Strangely enough, Finster was not the only preacher who gained recognition for his art in this way. At least two others, Anderson Johnson and Rev. Benjamin “B.F.” Perkins, had similar experiences of inspired preaching through their paintings.

 

Finster’s motivation never swayed from his original desire to preach, and he never doubted his calling by God. Thousands of Bible verses and his thoughts on heaven, hell, Judgment Day and other themes dotted the landscape and his paintings. This was because, as he said, “They stuck in people’s heads better that way.” Judging by the increasing fame he found, Finster was right.


Courtesy Paradise Garden Foundation and Finster family


Courtesy Paradise Garden Foundation and Finster family

In spite of the free, winsome and almost child-like style of his art, the subjects were usually serious. One exception is his love for Coke bottles – but even these are adorned with Bible verses and references to the spiritual.

Finster’s endless energy and big ideas resulted in more than 46,000 pieces of art throughout his life. His subjects include “All the Inventions of Mankind,” “Visions of Other Worlds,” “Sermons in Paint,” heroes, history, model houses and churches.

Going where no preacher/artist has gone before, Finster attended museum openings and watched politicians and celebrities tour his farm. He hung with hip young artists and thousands of tourists. Rock group R.E.M and Finster had a long association, as did the Newsboys and Talking Heads goups. The simple and uneducated preacher even ended up on the cover of Time Magazine, the epitome of fame in the U.S., although he did not seek it.

Finster was truly an example for Christians to use what they have to the greatest good. He could barely spell, yet millions have read his writings. He had no formal art training, yet his works hang in the greatest museums on earth. Even now his work is highly sought after. A small piece for sale at outsiderfolkart.com, is going for $8,500.

Howard’s last message to the world before his death in 2001:

Call upon the name of Jesus, even in your last breath,
Pray the Lord’s Prayer,

Pray without ceasing,
Love one another,
Forgive your brother, Win his love,

Jesus is coming in great power and glory,
Be ready to go.

To see Finster’s work in person, you can still visit the now non-profit Paradise Gardens and Museum, which is open to the public in Summerville, Ga. The museum holds an annual Finster Fest and a memorial concert is slated for Oct. 22, 2011.

According to museum Chairman Tommy Littleton, 80 percent of the original structures, sculpture, mosaics and art remains, with constant restoration. The board is seeking volunteers and hopes to attain historic landmark status soon.

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