|From Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens|
There’s a bunch of interesting things I’ve seen in and around this North Georgia patch of land called Atlanta, which I call home. And this website has chronicled a good number of them, 99 to be exact. With the 100th post looming on the horizon, I wanted to find the perfect place to fill this illustrious position. I agonized a bit over the subject, and was considering downplaying the whole concept. That was until I made I took a two block drive off Martha Berry Highway in Summerville (or Pennville) coming home this past 4th of July. There, just under two hours away from Atlanta, standing at the corner of Rene & Knox Streets, appropriately shining like a vision from God, was the perfect subject of my 100th post, the home of the late great folk artist Howard Finster, and his Paradise Gardens.
Now, I had recently learned that the place was open to the public. Until about October of 2010, it was viewable by appointment only and the nature of my ramblings doesn’t make me especially good at meeting appointments, but presently it is open 12-4:30pm, each Saturday and Sunday. It is free to enter, but donations are accepted and greatly needed to help finance the restoration of the property. There is also a three room gallery with Art for sale, including prints which aid the preservation project.
Beyond the Gallery lies the treasure of this visit, a truly fascinating world. Directly behind lies the two story chapel with its 8-sided cupola. The chapel is currently under renovation, and entry is not allowed to this place which was home to many free weddings and other celebrations. Behind the chapel, is the Finster home, the place where he lived and the birthplace of this beauty and craziness. The painting of George Washington on the front is said to be his first. Going back toward the gallery, there is a bridge and exterior structure, where the art is mostly crafted by Art Students who came to study with Howard. There is also a freestanding project done by Finster with Lehigh University. And then there’s a smaller chapel which you can enter, the old bike shop, the side Gardens. The Gardens looks something like a miniature golf course, if the course had no holes, clubs, or balls, and was designed by a lunatic visionary who had a fondness for decoration via any object he found with an emphasis on shiny scraps of glass and metal and a penchant for the Bible, Coca-Cola and Elvis.
Overall, the place has a pervasive religious theme. The story goes that after many years as a preacher, bike repairman, and sundry other jobs, Rev. Finster caught a drop of paint on his thumb, held it to the sun, and it spoke to him, telling him to paint 5000 works of sacred art. He painted virtually non-stop from that point on, and depending on what you call a work, he amassed nearly 50000. The type of art is folk or outsider and the content is visionary and naïve, for those who understand art. They range from completely painted bicycles (this one’s at the High Museum, not here) to carved faces in concrete to simple bible verses or poems hand scrawled by the artist. A piece taken by itself might pass for graffiti, but taken as a whole mean something much greater. A polite call to Godliness from hands and brush of a true Southerner.
His popularity soared in the 80’s after a New Yorker bought a piece and brought it to the big city. The Gardens and Finster were the centerpiece of R.E.M’s first video, Radio Free Europe (watch here). Finster also created the award winning cover for the Talking Heads album, Little Creatures (see here). He also made an appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show (watch here), where he showed off a little country charm and his talent for song and banjo. Howard Finster passed away in 2001.
So now there’s a need for preservation, and fortunately there seems to be an interest, but unfortunately not a cohesive one. The site is owned by Tommy Littlejohn, and he utilizes members of the Finster family to run the museum. There is support from David Leonardis, a Chicago Art Dealer and Patron, who is restoring the chapel. And there is movement by Chatooga County to purchase the place, which supposedly will help in getting donations and grants. But the last piece of the puzzle is, well, me and you, so I suggest the next time you are in the Cumberland Plateau, or if you want to see the works of one of the more important Georgia Artists first hand, you trek up there to show those with the power that this place is important to us too. And if you can help the cause financially, please do.
If you wish to donate to the restoration project you can visit the website for the email info or email them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org