by Ann Oppenhimer
The dust has finally settled after the whirlwind 25th Anniversary Conference of the Folk Art Society of America, held in Atlanta October 11-15, 2012. Most of this issue of the Folk Art Messenger is devoted to covering the events of this record-breaking conference. Attendance topped 150, the most ever! Three hard-working and devoted chairmen – Lynne Browne, Jim Browne and Susan Crawley – were also the most ever! The conference committee – with at least 15 members – also numbered the most ever! Read all about it in the following pages, which are illustrated with (yes!) the most photographs ever.
For me, personally, the conference was a trip down Memory Lane. All the happy times with Howard Finster came flooding back when I saw so many wonderful pieces of his art. Of course, Atlanta, being so close to Finster’s home in Summerville, Ga., is a Mecca for the people who appreciate the work of this celebrated artist. Almost every place our group visited was at least sprinkled if not saturated with Finster’s paintings and sculptures.
The High Museum of Art, where our opening reception was held on Thursday, October 11, is a grand repository of Finster’s life and work. Its large gallery is filled with everything from his painted bicycle to his remarkable portrait of George Washington, from his decorated briefcase (that I well remember him carrying when he came to Richmond in 1984!) to the inlaid sidewalks from Paradise Garden so carefully restored by Tony Rajer after they were purchased by the High. I remember Rajer saying at the time, “The sidewalks are full of rebar, broken glass, mud and other hazardous materials.”
The FASA symposium on Friday, October 11, was another tribute to Finster: (1) the Folk Art Society designated Paradise Garden as a “National Folk Art Site worthy of protection and preservation” and (2) a panel of experts discussed “The Future of Paradise Garden.” You can read about those presentations on pages 16-19.
The FASA auction/dinner, also on Friday, was dedicated to the memory of Tony Rajer, with ten percent of the auction proceeds to be given to the Paradise Garden Foundation in honor of Rajer, who had worked many years to conserve its structures and artifacts. Thus, Rajer and Finster were both honored by that evening’s events.
The private homes visited on Saturday, October 14, featured many examples of Finster’s work with one, in particular, containing some of the earliest and most significant pieces that we had ever seen. We went from one visual treat to another.
But, to me, another glorious day was Sunday, October 14, when we visited the home of Thomas and Tommye Scanlin in Dahlonega, Ga., that featured the most extensive, comprehensive and remarkable collection of Finster material in the world. The Scanlins were close friends and supporters of Howard and his family through the years, and they visited Paradise Garden frequently. When Finster died, Thomas Scanlin took on the task of preserving the cache of memorabilia that the artist, who probably never threw away anything, had assembled over a lifetime.
On their dining room table, the Scanlins had arranged a collection of this memorabilia for the FASA group – small Finster art works, such as painted shoes, cutouts, other painted objects as well as Finster’s written and photographic records of his various trips and exhibitions.
Whenever Finster traveled, he carried a Polaroid camera to record what happened during his trip. He never looked at his pictures until he returned home, preferring to put them in his jacket pocket so that he wasn’t pressured into giving them away. Later, he mounted these photos on a large posterboard and wrote a caption underneath each picture. He called these records of his travels “plaques.”
When I saw the plaques Finster had made of his six-day visit with us for the Howard Finster Folk Art Festival: Sermons in Paint at the University of Richmond, of our visit to Washington with him for one of his exhibitions and of our visits to Paradise Garden, I was overcome with emotion. In one Polariod, taken in a D.C. Chinese restaurant, he wrote under the picture, “Boo Oppenhimer taught me how to eat with a stick.” In another group of photographs carefully framed in Finster’s handmade wood-burned frame, he had written under a picture of my husband and me with Howard in the middle, “Photo taken by Helen Peery.” My mother had taken the picture when the three of us visited him many years ago in Summerville.
That day, Thomas Scanlin presented us with a “dimension” (a cutout pattern that Finster made before he painted a person’s portrait) of my husband. We had never seen the portrait that this dimension represented, and perhaps Finster never painted it. But we were thrilled and honored to have this lovely memento from our friend Howard and from the Scanlins’ collection.
By this time, I was actually in tears. It was indeed a day that awakened deep feelings. It was a time of reflection on our friendship with a remarkable person who was the reason that the Folk Art Society of America was founded 25 years ago and part of the reason it exists today.