After we had several calls from around the country telling us that Howard Finster was in the process of dismantling and selling off Paradise Garden, we took a trip to Summerville, Ga. to see for ourselves.
A couple of years ago Howard Finster moved away from the crowds that were invading Paradise Garden and bought a sprawling white-brick rancher with swimming pool in an affluent Summerville subdivision. The compound contains the main house, a garage and three other buildings -- a pool house, a studio (where he paints) and a workshop (where he constructs sculptural pieces and also stores his supply of posters). "You have to keep the paint separate from the other stuff," Finster says.
The lawn stretches over four acres and is surrounded by a formidable chain-link fence. Visitors are not ordinarily admitted to this private enclave. Now Finster receives his admirers only on Sunday afternoons in Paradise Garden, a few miles away.
Most of the original pieces from the Garden were sold years ago and new pieces made either by Finster or one of his children or grandchildren, (mainly Allen Wilson). On first inspection, the Garden did not appear to have been altered to any drastic extent. In fact, the grass was carefully mowed and the vegetation well-groomed. "I've had to hire someone to cut the grass at both places now," Finster said, "It's just too much."
On closer inspection we noted that several important elements were missing. The original portion of the famous "Bicycle Tool" sidewalk, containing Finster's tools which he set into concrete when he decided to "make sacred art," has been sold to a dealer from Atlanta. "Backhoes have been coming in there and tearing up the Garden," was the rumor we heard, and indeed, a backhoe did dig up a 12-foot section of sidewalk. A truck hauled it away.
The remaining meandering network of sidewalks, made under Finster's supervision by his grandson Allen Wilson, is constructed of broken crockery and mirrors. Wilson is responsible for many painted signs and other constructions in the Garden.
A large concrete statue, the "Coin Man," has also been sold, as have several concrete heads and busts which were stationed by the front door of the Chapel. Finster's son, Roy, told us that "The Lion and the Lamb," another concrete sculpture, had been sold.
An early icon of the Garden, a large wooden angel cut-out, numbered 2122, its wings decorated with the names of friends, dealers and famous artists, was replaced several years ago by a second Finster-painted angel. The current angel is labeled "copy," and it memorializes rock groups, dealers and new friends, but contained few names from the original angel.
One of my personal favorites, the concrete, writhing "Snake Mound," was no longer in the Garden, and we don't know when or if it had been sold.
Over the years that we have been visiting Paradise Garden, we have noticed many changes as pieces deteriorate and are replaced or sold. But why would Finster sell the Bicycle-Tool sidewalk, his initial statement marking the break between "pastoring churches" and preaching through art? Is he making a new statement - that the Garden can no longer be preserved? Larry Schlachter, a dealer from Summerville and long-time friend of Finster, said when he heard the news he felt like there had been a death in the family.
Finster tried to sell Paradise Garden to an individual buyer, to a museum, and to the town of Summerville, but he had no takers. The site appears to be impossible to maintain, even with Finster's energetic supervision. Although Finster has created this Paradise, it appears that no one wants it.