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.
"The people of Summerville just missed the boat," said the owner of a local cafe. "We all failed to recognize Finster's importance. No one around here really appreciated him."When we asked Finster why he was selling off parts of the Garden, he said he needed the money. "When I die, I'll have enough money for five funerals," he said, "but I like to keep a little extra on hand, and I have lots of expenses."
Finster, alert as ever, was in reasonably good health for his 77 years. He takes medication for diabetes and suffers from arthritis in his right shoulder. He has difficulty writing and painting with the hand that had painted 33,405 numbered works of art as of April 25, 1994. "I just painted the first painting with my left hand the other day," he told us.
During the night we spent in Summerville, Finster created five paintings after 10:00 p.m. and was hard at work on a set of 10 small angels, three Uncle Sams and two Hank Williamses the next morning. "People have been saying that I'm not doing my own paintings anymore, but that's not true," Finster said. "The boys get everything ready for me. They make the cut-outs, sand them down and put on the first coat of paint, according to my patterns. I've taught them exactly what to do, and they do it." Finster is no different in this regard from his historical predecessors, Rubens, Picasso or Warhol.
In recent years, Finster has been using enamel felt-tip markers to paint faces, details, stripes, and messages on each painting, sometimes using an entire marker per painting. He goes through hundreds of markers in a week, he says. He often fills the entire back of the cut-out with poems and religious exhortations. There is no question that Finster's current work is more finished and even slick. The surfaces feel like car enamel as opposed to the splintery roughness of the pieces done as recently as two years ago.
There is an assembly-line quality to much of the current work, but characteristically, Finster has carefully planned his production so that he can produce a prodigious quantity with the least amount of effort. For years, Finster has made wooden bases (or "shelves") for his small cut-outs, gluing a Xeroxed message to each base. In Finster's workshop are several large cartons of these bases in three different sizes, ready for him to attach as he completes the cut-outs.
Stacks of printed posters and serigraphs filled the tables in the shop. "I'm thinking of giving up painting all together," Finster said, "and concentrating on making prints." Finster has been known to express this idea before, but it may be another marketing ploy from the master salesman.
Finster showed us a poster he had recently made at the request of Habitat For Humanity in Atlanta. Delicate, fanciful birds spread across the patterned surface in a beautiful drawing that was the equal of any of his earlier work. He has not lost his skills in color and composition, even though the use of felt-tip marker, a thin medium, gives a different paint quality.
Two birds twittered in a cage nearby as Finster, always working, systematically applied glitter to the 10 angels-in-progress. "I taught that bird to talk," he said. "First I heard what he said, and I made the same sound, as near as I could. Then every time I came in the room, I made his sound. Next, I made a different sound, so he tried to imitate my sound. Birds have their own language, and I let them know that I would speak their language, and after they accepted that, then they learned my language." Finster whistled a complicated series of notes to the bird which echoed the exact tune back. Finster laughed,"Of course, I don't know what we're saying, but we're talking to each other."
There's always something to learn from Howard Finster.
Ed's. Note: The majority of the items mentioned in this article were subsequently sold to the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Ga. as well as to several private collectors in Georgia. Under the auspices of the High Museum, a group, called the Paradise Project, has been formed to raise funds for the preservation and restoration of artifacts from Finster's Garden.
ANN OPPENHIMER, of Richmond, Va., is the founder and first president of the Folk Art Society of America.