It’s a steamy June morning in Summerville, Ga., and the troops are gathering. Volunteers from Florida, Alabama and nearby Atlanta wear baseball hats and carry work gloves in their hands. Some, despite the upward-creeping temperature, have on long sleeves and pants; they’ve experienced the abundant poison ivy here, and they’re not taking any chances. Mosquitoes begin to nip at ankles, and a bottle of Deep Woods Off! makes the rounds. A team that includes Reverend Tommy Littleton, one of the late Howard Finster’s closest protégés and director of the Paradise Gardens non-profit organization, is already hammering overhead, standing on scaffolding surrounding the World’s Folk Art Chapel. They’ve achieved a resurrection of sorts, defying an art-world Greek chorus that had declared futile Littleton’s efforts to save the chapel and Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden.
The sight of a stabilized chapel – a structure that was, until recently, collapsing – surprises a few volunteers at this Paradise Garden Work Day as they arrive at the scene. Most were expecting a more dire state of affairs. The Paradise Gardens group has struggled for years to keep its head above water. Littleton speaks candidly about the nonprofit’s efforts to raise funds and gain legitimacy in the eyes of the art world since acquiring the Garden from Beverly Finster about five years ago.
“Sadly, many of Finster’s fans haven’t shown interest in preserving the environment,” Littleton admits. He surmises that collectors of Finster’s work might have been more interested in acquiring pieces from the Garden than keeping the environment intact. The general state of the economy has not helped fundraising efforts, either, but perhaps the greatest impediment to a viable restoration effort has been the widespread belief that the Garden has deteriorated beyond repair, and moreover that Howard Finster himself “favored the idea that, after he passed on to other worlds, the Garden would follow the natural order of things and be recycled back into the earth,” as Lehigh University Professor of Religion Norman Girardot explained in a July 2010 e-mail. This was “toward the end of his life, at times,” Girardot continues, “for example, when he was contemplating his own cremation. Admittedly, Howard changed his mind about cremation and also (with a little good-hearted prompting from friends like Tommy Littleton and C. M. and Grace Laster) the viability of the Garden in its original incarnation.”
Littleton never believed that Finster truly favored the idea that the Garden should be allowed to decay. “Howard Finster was brokenhearted at the end of his life about the state of his gardens and the disintegration of his legacy,” he said at the June “work day.” “He wanted nothing more than his surviving family members to care for the Garden, and felt helpless when it became apparent they could not do so. We feel his legacy isn’t complete without the Garden. It’s his largest work. This building,” Littleton says, pointing at the chapel, “is his masterpiece.”
Girardot concedes that at the time he wrote his essay for Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South (University Press of Mississippi, 2004), he “favored the idea that the Garden, without a living Howard, was best left to revert to nature (especially given the vicissitudes of the southern climate and the lack of any proper care and maintenance). This seemed most obvious from the decrepit state of the Worlds Folk Art Church which only recently was falling in on itself, had been stripped of much of its original glory, and was frankly dangerous.”
But Littleton will tell you that Girardot has changed his tune, and Girardot confirms this is so: “My last two visits to the Garden (this past year), and my meeting with Tommy Littleton, convinced me that there was in fact real grace and hope for Howard's original vision for, and incarnation of, the garden. Thus much important repair work had been done on the church, and the overall grounds have been refurbished to the extent that you felt the living presence of spirit again. My impression is that much of this healing work has come about because of Littleton's efforts (and his many helpers) and the fact that his channeling of Howard's spirit is inspiring others to take on the work of preservation and rejuvenation.”
Capturing and re-creating what Girardot calls “Howard’s original vision for, and incarnation of, the garden” is exactly what Littleton is trying to do. He says he is taking a “creative and adaptive approach” in doing so. Littleton’s nonprofit group has removed some of Finster’s original pieces from the Garden and is now keeping them in a climate-controlled environment. Other elements of the Garden—Finster’s structures, mosaics, masonry work and other outdoor sculptures—remain, when it is possible to halt further deterioration with modern conservation techniques. Littleton is inviting artists to make re-creations of some of the removed work to “bring color back in the gardens,” and is labeling all replicas as such. Eventually, he would like for the Garden to host a gallery space to showcase the work of up-and-coming artists on a regular basis.
This approach may make some purists bristle, but it is in keeping with Howard’s vision of the Garden as a showcase for gifts received from friends and admirers, including many works by other artists. Finster once said he would like to have “two of everything in the world,” and the Garden was his version of Noah’s Ark. “The gardens need to be a facility for the arts, not just a static memorial,” says Littleton. Girardot echoes this sentiment: “I don't believe that Howard would simply want his Garden pickled and preserved in amber. Rather there should be new life and a new living spirit that takes up residence in the Garden.”
A STRUGGLE TO FIND PARTNERS
Littleton’s group has tried many strategies for finding partners to help with fundraising and establishing legitimacy. He has appealed to corporations, including Coca-Cola, for support, but he says that “corporate money is not forthcoming—that might be because of the overtly Christian nature of the work.” And allowing an obvious corporate presence is at odds with the nonprofit’s philosophy of maintaining the authenticity of the Garden. “If you jazz it up too much and make it too commercial, it loses its appeal,” notes Littleton.
It seems that the Kohler Foundation—the Sheboygan, Wis.-based organization devoted to preserving outdoor environments created by self-taught artists—would be an obvious choice for a partner in preserving the Garden. But Kohler “came in right after we acquired the Gardens from the Finster family,” Littleton says. “They looked at the chapel and put a $2 million price tag on its restoration alone—that’s not including any of the rest of the Garden.” The Kohler Foundation’s approach, which favors bringing in top conservation experts as paid consultants, seemed out of reach to Littleton. “Using a more grassroots approach, with mostly volunteer labor, we think we could do it for three to five hundred thousand [dollars].”
The nonprofit received some $100,000 worth of pro bono help from Markham Smith of Smith Dalia Architects in Atlanta, who did several site visits and worked up a proposal for the group to use in grant applications. Carpenter/contractor Marlin Bracket of The Carpenter Company in Atlanta, which specializes in historic home restoration, also provided help with consultation and proposal writing. Littleton says his group had to stop waiting for major funding to come through for the restoration work, though, “lest we lose the Chapel in a heavy snow or high winds. We moved on to a grass roots effort with volunteers and a local contractor to begin the structural support and roof work.”
Finally, the Paradise Gardens group had a breakthrough. Littleton learned that Pasaquan, the folk art environment in Buena Vista, Ga. created by Eddie Owens Martin (a.k.a. St. EOM), had been designated a “Place in Peril” in 2006 by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. This designation ultimately helped the Pasaquan Preservation Society get the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In June 2009, Littleton applied for Paradise Garden to be designated a Place in Peril, and in November, he learned that the Georgia Trust would include the Garden on its 2010 Places in Peril list.
This was tremendous news for the Paradise Gardens group, which had been working for years without a budget, struggling to establish itself as a legitimate organization that could be trusted to use donated funds in an efficient and responsible manner. And while a Place in Peril designation requires that a viable preservation effort already be underway, with “a demonstrable level of community commitment and support for the preservation” of the site, Littleton is humble about his achievements to date as director of the nonprofit. “My involvement started out small—bringing groups of volunteers, like church youth groups, to help out at the Garden. It grew deeper over the years. But I had never run a nonprofit before this. I had to learn a lot of things. Not just about fundraising, but about building your reputation as an organization. That is probably the most important thing you have to do as the director of a new nonprofit. That’s been a major struggle for us.”
“But having the Georgia Trust on our side is huge,” Littleton says. “We have received attention from them continuously since our designation in 2009 as a Place in Peril.” The Georgia Trust provides Places in Peril with financial support, technical preservation assistance, publicity and an ever-important stamp of legitimacy.
BACK TO THE GARDEN
Littleton’s organization has gained much over the past few months, but it did have to let go of at least one thing: its goatherd. “That’s the pen where they used to keep the goats,” says Jordan Poole at the work day in June. His accent marks him as a native of the area, and he has that fair-and-freckled, Scotch-Irish look typical of many of the region’s established families. “They would eat the kudzu and keep it at bay. But they were getting out too much.”
Poole seems like a local, but he is here today as the Field Services Manager for the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Before coming to the Georgia Trust, he worked as Restoration Manager for Mt. Vernon, restoring and conserving structures on the grounds of George Washington’s iconic Virginia home. His most notable project there was the Gardener’s House, an original wood and masonry structure dating from 1776 that was opened to the public in the spring of 2008. “The Gardener’s Cottage was like my big accomplishment,” Poole says when asked about his professional background. He holds a B.F.A. and an M.A. in Historic Preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
His experience in masonry conservation is proving indispensible to the restoration efforts of Littleton and the Paradise Gardens group, but another element of Poole’s biography has been perhaps equally important to the fate of the Garden: he doesn’t just seem like a local, he is a local. He is a native of Summerville, where his father once served as a public school system superintendent. When asked who the key players have been in Paradise Garden’s reversal of fortunes over the past year, Littleton says without hesitation, “A lot of people have said they would help us over the years, but Jordan has really come through for us.”
The Paradise Garden project could hardly be more different from the work Poole did at Mt. Vernon. “That was very high-end conservation work,” Poole says, “We got to work with all the best materials. We had lots of money. This is a different situation.”
The approach is one of triage. The number one priority is the chapel. The good news is that “the most complicated technical [aspects of the restoration of the Garden] are already taking place in the chapel,” says Poole.
Littleton explains in greater detail. “Major moisture was seeping up from the ground. Water was running into the building from above, as well. In some of the rooms, the floor was caving in.” But the Chapel has now been internally braced; its columns, fretwork and walkways are now stabilized. “The building is not in danger of collapse anymore. We have re-roofed where necessary, and now we are doing trim and aesthetic work to try to make it look like it did in its heyday.” Littleton estimates that the nonprofit has spent about $30,000 so far on restoring the chapel, using mostly donated labor in the process.
Will visitors ever be able to enter the chapel? Littleton says yes. “We would like to be able to use it for weddings. And we want to have a revolving show of Howard’s work—of pieces from the Garden’s archives and also possibly pieces on loan from collectors. We welcome any donations of work back to the Garden for permanent display, as well!”
And then there’s the rest of the Garden. Encroaching vegetation must be removed, as it damages sculpture, structures, mosaics and everything else in its path. “Outdoor environments have unique challenges,” Littleton says. “It’s a huge struggle to get deeper into the place without a budget.” The swampy conditions, hot and humid climate and the presence of kudzu all conspire to make Garden maintenance a Sisyphean task.
To prevent vegetation from sprouting back, soil deposits have to be removed, too—some of Finster’s work is covered with several years’ worth of silt deposits, which wash onto the lower-lying areas of the Garden whenever it rains. This is due to lack of maintenance on the system of canals that Finster dug to drain the swampland which ultimately became the Garden. To protect the rest of the Garden from silt, “the canals need to be continuously dredged,” Poole says. “And you can’t bring heavy machinery into the garden to do that. The ground is too soft, and there would be too much damage. You need to get guys in there with shovels and wheelbarrows, and that’s it. So it’s doable—it just requires labor.”
That’s exactly what the volunteers at the Work Day were doing: pulling weeds (including poison ivy), carting out accumulated soil by the bucketful and dredging the canals with shovels. This reporter spent the day at one of the Garden walls, removing years’ worth of vines, dirt and moss and uncovering some portions of the wall for the first time in years. Only a mild case of poison ivy resulted.
Besides the chapel, the most exciting sight at the Work Day was the mosaic garden and small mirrored structure that had, until a few years ago, been completely covered in kudzu. “A lot of original material is still there,” Poole said. Volunteers working on the site looked like archaeologists at a dig, removing soil and revealing the mosaic work carefully with small hand tools.
Once the drainage system in the Garden is improved, and the vegetation is under control, stabilization and conservation of the mosaics, sculptures and smaller structures will no longer be a losing battle. “It appears Finster used two different types of Ready-Mix [cement]. One was a mortar mix, and the other type is called Portland Cement,” Poole says. “The Portland Cement is stable, but the mortar mix had more lime in it. That lime leaches out over time into water, and the mortar starts to disintegrate.”
“Our recommendations include the use of consolidants to remedy the leaching. First you have to remove all the vegetation and soil from the cement, though. The best consolidants come from a company called Cathedral Stone Works. We used their products at Mt. Vernon. They also make a product called V-2, which eliminates moss and algae forming on stone, which is what causes stone to break down over time.”
“I have a wish list a mile long for this place,” Poole says, his enthusiasm brimming. “I hope we’ll be able to do it all.”
Littleton knows that brick-and-mortar preservation efforts require that a site be protected from certain threats— development, foreclosure and condemnation by eminent domain (the fate suffered by Lonnie Holley’s environment near the Birmingham, Ala. airport). He is pursuing two parallel strategies for securing the Garden’s future.
The first is a possible purchase of the land by Chattooga County, which would designate it as a cultural park. “The County would purchase the Garden, and our nonprofit would run the facility. The ownership would be permanently secure, and this would facilitate fundraising. People would have greater confidence in the Garden’s future.” Littleton has been working with Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winter to this end.
The second is to attain further designations as an historic site. Keith Hebert, a history professor at the University of West Georgia and a former historian in the state of Georgia’s Historic Preservation Office, is preparing applications for the Garden’s inclusion on both the Georgia Register of Historic Places (through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources) and the National Register of Historic Places (through the National Park Service). Hebert prepared the same application for Pasaquan, now on the National Register. “Getting landmark status would be the best possible scenario for us. First of all, being on that register means the property is protected from demolition and any major changes,” Littleton explains. “And it paves the way for getting money from a lot of foundations. For instance, the Getty Foundation gives grants of up to $150,000 to projects like ours, but you have to get on the National Register first.”
Despite Littleton’s frustration over raising funds over the past few years (“It has been a disappointment that funding has been so hard to achieve for such a significant artist’s work”), he is upbeat about the future of the Garden. Public interest in the Garden is picking up. “On a recent Wednesday, we had eight separate tour groups come through,” he said. “We’ve had film crews from China, Japan, England; the English and the French really love this place!” A Hollywood biopic on Finster is also rumored to be in the works. “It’s a major possibility,” Littleton claims. “It would have a much greater impact than any documentary ever could.”
Beyond the three current priorities cited by Poole—preserving the Tower, improving drainage canals, and cleaning and stabilizing masonry work and Garden structures—what are Littleton’s dreams for the site? “We would like to purchase some adjacent property to create parking for arts festivals and music events,” Littleton says. “And we would really like to not charge for admission—that’s keeping in Howard’s spirit of doing things. We want to keep it from becoming too commercial, but we would like to offer amenities like a café, and even possibly a small B&B, so people can spend the night here. And we would really like to host the gallery space” for ongoing art exhibitions, although “we might not operate that ourselves.”
“Paradise Gardens is the context for all of Finster’s artwork,” Poole says. “A curator may have a different view of things—that things should be dismantled and kept in a climate-controlled environment,” but as a preservationist, he aims to preserve the context, to revive the feeling of the place as a whole.
In Poole and the Georgia Trust, Littleton seems to have found the ideal partners for his efforts “to capture the essence of an era,” as Littleton says. After years of “taking a bare bones approach,” Littleton is starting to dream a little bigger. “The Garden has enormous potential as a museum and a space for events like Finster Fest and concerts. Howard was a musician himself, so it seems fitting to use the site for music,” Littleton says. What’s the best way for Finster fans to support the preservation effort? “Donate directly to Paradise Gardens Park and Museum.” The nonprofit’s website can be found at www.finstersparadisegardens.org.