THE 20th century folk artist – Howard Finster, man of vision

Reverend Howard Finster – Paradise Gardens

1916 — 2001
Summerville, GA
In disrepair

“Well, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not here to live a normal life.  I’m sent here on a mission… I came here as a man of visions.” — Howard Finster, 1984, “With Liberty” exhibit, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2008.

“The Lord spoke and said: ‘Give up the repair of lawn mowers; Give up the repair of bicycles; Give up the preaching of sermons; Paint my pictures.’ And that’s what I done.”

Howard Finster’s name is synonymous with outsider folk art. Before being tapped for album art by bands such as the Talking Heads and R.E.M., Howard was a preacher and bike repairman who made tramp art-like clock cases. Having his first vision at the age of three, he saw himself in the service of the Lord.

In 1961, he turned to spreading the gospel through his art, and originally attempted to create a garden where every edible fruit on earth would be grown. As time passed, and the concept shifted, Paradise Gardens became as stunning a visionary environment as his individual pieces of art. His painted masonite or plywood cut-outs were colorfully designed, filled with angels and preachings. He numbered and dated each piece on the back, adding other personal messages. Howard’s accessibility was renowned, from his sermons at the Gardens, to appearing as the guest speaker at the Elvis Conference in Memphis and the Picasso exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. His artwork graced the album cover of the Talking Heads “Little Creatures,” and he collaborated with Michael Stipes for R.E.M.’s “Reckoning” album cover.

Before turning to art at god’s command he was a preacher and a bike repairman, among other things, who made tramp-art-like clock cases. Once he got going, his art was prolific, interesting, visionary and cheap. He built an environment that was stunning in whole and in many of its parts. Finster himself was personally accessible, even if there was an obvious cultural distance as hipster visitors listened politely to his monologues and sermons. Ultimately, the only bit of outsider prestige he was missing was the extra aura of being black.

Considered one of “50 Classic Outsiders”, Raw Vision Sourcebook, 2002″

Although Finster may have underpriced his work in the early days, it was clear that he knew what he was about. And as perfectly as he represented so much that was attractive in the wave of self-taught artists who found success in the ’80s, he also came to reflect the pitfalls of that success. Endless repetition of work fit mostly for gift shops did nothing for the credibility of more ambitious pieces. Quality plummeted across the board. Photocopied text replaced writing on low-end pieces and fade-prone markers replaced paint. He enlisted family members to assist with the mass production. Eventually the best parts of his Garden were sold off. Almost as quickly as he established himself as an artist of extraordinary vision, Finster raised the question: What happens when such an artist, call him self-taught, outsider or folk, becomes so thoroughly engaged with the art market? What does it mean to be a post-outsider?

(Curator Tim Flinn has generously donated text to this site from the exhibit “Howard Finster: Legacy of a Stranger on Earth Returned Home”)

Find this site and others with the iPhone app, “Best Road Trip Ever!”

(Photos © copyright 2006-2013 Kelly Ludwig, all rights reserved)

Bibliography & Links:

“Detour Art—Outsider, Folk Art, and Visionary Folk Art Environments Coast to Coast, Art and Photographs from the Collection of Kelly Ludwig” by Kelly Ludwig, Kansas City Star Books, 2007.

“Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations Coast to Coast Travel-o-Pedia” by Randy Mason, et. al., Kansas City Star Books, 2009.

“Rare Visions & Roadside Revelations” (the book), by Randy Mason, Michael Murphy and Don Mayberger, Kansas City Star Publishing, 2002.

“20th Century American Folk, Self Taught, and Outsider Art” by Betty-Carol Sellen, Cynthia J. Johnson, Neal-Schuman Publishers, New York, 1993.

“American Folk Art, A Regional Reference” by Kristin G. Congdon and Kara Kelley Hallmark, ABC-CLIO Publishers, California, 2012.

“American Self-Taught Art: An Illustrated Analysis of 20th Century Artists and Trends with 1,319 Capsule Biographies” by Florence Laffal and Julius Laffal, 2003.

“Baking in the Sun, Visionary Images from the South” by Andy Nasisse and  Maude Wahlman, University of Washington Press, exhibit catalog, 1987.

“Contemporary American Folk Art  – A Collector’s Guide”  Chuck and Jan Rosenak, Abbeville Press, 1996.

“Contemporary Folk Art: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum” by Tom Patterson, Watson-Guptill Publications/New York, 2001.

“Flying Free: Twentieth-Century Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Ellin and Baron Gordon” by Ellin Gordon, Barbara L. Luck and Tom Patterson, exhibit catalog for The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, 1997.

“The Intuitive Eye, The Mendelsohn Collection”  by Gael Mendelsohn, Michael Mendelsohn, Ricco/Maresca Gallery, FotoFolio,U.S., 2000.

“Let it Shine: Self-Taught Art from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection”  by Lynne E. Spriggs, Joanne Cubbs, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Susan Mitchell Crawley, Michael E. Shapiro and Peter Harholdt, organized by the High Museum of Art, 2001.

“Light of the Spirit : Portraits of Southern Outsider Artists” by Karekin Goekjian and Robert Peacock, University of Mississippi Press, 1998.

“Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists” by  Chuck and Jan Rosenak, Abbeville Press, New York, 1990.

“Passing in the Outsider Lane: Art from the Heart of Twenty-One Self-Taught Artists” by Dan Prince, Journey Editions, 1995.

Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond” by John Maizels, Phaidon Press; New Ed edition, 1996, 2000.

“Raw Vision Outsider Art Sourcebook”  Raw Vision, Ltd., 2002.

“Self-Made Worlds: Visionary Environments” by Roger Manley and Mark Sloan, Aperture, New York, 1997.

“Self Taught, Outsider, and Folk Art—A guide to American Artists, Locations and Resources” by Betty-Carol Sellen with Cynthia J. Johnson, McFarland & Company, 2000.

“Wos Up Man?” Selections from the Joseph D. and Janet M. Sheen Collection of Self-taught Art”  by Joyce Henri Robinson, Palmer Museum of Art, 2005.

On DVD – Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, “Southern Flavor”, KCPT, Kansas City Public Television, 1999-2001.

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