A Tribute to Howard Finster

A Tribute to Howard Finster

Article by  Ann Oppenhimer 

This special issue of Folk Art Messenger is one I dreaded we would have to publish some day — an issue announcing the death of our beloved Howard Finster — which occurred on October 22, 2001. Tributes to the most well-known American folk artist have poured in. Major newspapers and magazines published obituaries: The New York Times had two versions of his half-page obituary (with two photographs) — one taken from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and a later one written by Times art critic Roberta Smith.

From The Los Angeles Times to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, from People to Time, U.S. News and Newsweek, from ARTnews to Art in America, from CNN to National Public Radio — the national media covered the story of the country preacher from Summerville, Ga., who gave up “pastoring churches” after he saw a face in a white paint splotch on his index finger and the Lord told him to “paint sacred art.”

What made Howard Finster the most popular, the most famous, the most beloved folk artist of our time? Was it his prodigious output of nearly 48,000 works of art? Was it his charismatic personality? Was it the number of exhibitions, books, catalogues and anthologies of folk art in which his paintings and sculptures were featured? As a matter of fact, in 1985, Finster was included in more exhibitions than any other artist — and I don’t mean just folk artists!

Howard Finster was the most generous person I have ever met. He wanted to share his art work, his ideas and his working methods; even the patterns he used to make his celebrated portraits were freely lent for students to copy. If anyone wanted to reproduce one of his paintings on a T-shirt, Finster willingly agreed. If a famous rock group like R.E.M., a country band like Black Hawk, or a little-known Christian quartet like Adam Again wanted to use one of his paintings on an album cover, Finster was delighted — it meant that more of God’s messages were going out. When the Talking Heads’ album Little Creatures made Rolling Stone’s 1985 Album Cover of the Year and sold a million copies, Finster said, “Each cover has 22 Bible messages on it, so that’s 22 million messages from God going into the world.”

Throughout the years, there was much criticism that Finster had made too many works of art and that many of them were dashed off, assembly-line style, with his family members painting the backgrounds while he finished the details and the ubiquitous messages. All of this is true, but that was exactly Finster’s mission — to fill the world with his paintings and his messages from God. Why would anyone criticize that? Of course, his early paintings were more carefully rendered and more subtle in their design, but until the last Finster was inking in the words on his production cut-outs — Uncle Sams and Angels, two of his favorites.

Finster showed his genius in planning a painting or in constructing a sculpture out of non-art or discarded materials. He had a wonderful, intuitive color sense. His harmony of word and image has never been equaled. But above all, his open-hearted personality and his love of people touched everyone who met him.

This issue of The Folk Art Messenger is dedicated to Howard Finster — his life and his art.

ANN OPPENHIMER is the Executive Director of the Folk Art Society of America

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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