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October 23, 2001: Howard Finster

Among our most dear friends in the whole wide world are Michelle and Pierce Pettis. Michelle is a young, entertainment industry scheduler/PR hack, as well as a pretty fine singer in her own rights. Pierce is a singsongwriter of exceptional skill (his songs have been sung by Garth Brooks and Mark Heard too name only a few). The following note--obituary, really--is from them about their good freind and legendary folk-pop painter The Rev. Howard Finster, and i send it as an update from me as well--because it celebrates so much of what we talked of in this pages over the past 7 months. You will read from michelle how Howard saw the ordinary as the building blocks of faithfulness, and that in his art he frequently made beauty of decidedly ugly things. That's this week--by faith. I was dismissed from the transplant on 10th, and send home to be care for. Hmmm. By the following Tuesdsay (16) i'd been readmitted to deal with fevers (as high as 102.5), chills, nausea and a few other choice side-effects (the hallucinogenic dreams have returned). Now, nearly a week later, I remain in the hospital, trusting that Jesus will make something beautiful out of this clearly ugly process. May reading a bit about Rev. Finster give you the grace to pray for me, and for those who suffer unheard.

-----Original Message-----

From: Pierce Pettis

Hi all,

I thought I'd pass on this obituary of our local treasure, Rev. Howard Finster. Pierce and I live only miles from his birthplace, and Summerville, GA, home of Paradise Gardens. We are also blessed (yup, blessed is the word for it) to have permission from Howard to use one of his pieces for the cover of "State of Grace". Quite an honor, certainly. While I've only met him a handful of times, my opinion of him is that he is of one of the purest souls I've ever met. The genius of Howard is how his work reflects the heart of the gospel message: Beauty out of Junk. Howard's world was all--and only--about the redemption of old, useless, junk. Everything--plywood, popsicle sticks, old bicycles, broken plates and mirrors--has the potential for beauty and redemption in Howard's world.

On a personal level, Howard's art forces me to consider two things: 1) Howard makes no distinction between the sacred and secular, and 2) He is a product of Dekalb County. Howard's images of angels, devils, serpents, images of heaven and earth, exist equally alongside images of Elvis, presidents, Coke bottles, shoes, family members, and automobiles. I remain suspicious of a cultural-Christian tendency to disregard the things of the earth as having little or no heavenly value. I am equally suspicious of a cultural-generic-relativist tendency to disregard the reality of angels or devils. Howard's vision reminds me to take into account, once again, the everythingness of the world, both the things seen and unseen. Mystery found in the mundane.

My way of seeing Howard's work changed dramatically once I moved to Dekalb County, Alabama. Many of you know my love/hate relationship with this area of the country. I'll spare you my whinning reflection for the time being. We do live in a beautiful area in the first hint of the Appalacian Mt. range. Waterfalls, rolling hills, canyons are part of my daily landscape. These images make up the landscape of Howard's paintings, colored in vivid pinks, greens, and yellows. I see the color and curve of Howard's hills, and realize Howard could only be painting this area of the country. This isn't a profound point, but I wonder how many people, after listening to Howard or visiting his gardens, have looked up at the hills and realized they are standing within Howard's visions.

Thanks for listenting; this is my small, small way to honor Howard.

love, michele

October 23, 2001

The Rev. Howard Finster, Georgia Folk Artist, Dies at 84

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Howard Finster, a Baptist preacher whose evangelical faith, outgoing personality and compulsive work habits made him one of the most prominent and prolific folk artists of the 20th century, died yesterday in a hospital in Rome, Ga. He was 84 and lived in Summerville, Ga., a few miles from the Paradise Garden, the junk-and-cement environment that brought him his first recognition in the middle 1970's.

His death was announced on his Web site,, and on his phone message at 1-800-FINSTER. Both said that "he is more alive now than he ever has been" and that "he never met a person that he didn't love."

By the time he died, Mr. Finster, who called himself a "second Noah," was a celebrity in his own right. He played his banjo on Johnny Carson's television show, designed an award- winning record album cover for the Talking Heads and executed paintings to hang in the Library of Congress. He appeared at folk music festivals, a conference on Elvis and art schools around the country.

Lee Kogan, director of the Folk Art Institute at the American Museum of Folk Art, called him "one of the most important self-taught artists of the 20th century" and cited his ability to "imaginatively transform humble everyday material others would call junk." She noted that a wire construction of a train in the museum's collection includes a long written list of possible art materials that begins, "There is no limit what you can make with fence wire, yard chairs, tables, houses. . . ."

A list of the detritus that went into Mr. Finster's Paradise Garden, located 90 miles northwest of Atlanta, would probably fill a book. The other cornerstone of his fame is his densely apocalyptic text-image paintings, which he seemed to produce at assembly-line rates. Their lush, extravagantly crowded surfaces form latter-day illuminated manuscripts and cover subjects that include heaven and hell, tales from the Bible and American history and popular culture.

But his prominence was certainly aided by his stream-of-consciousness talk, his combination of modesty and absolute certainty in both his faith and his talent, and his nonstop religious visions. He claimed to have had his first at the age of 3 when he was visited by his dead sister, Abby.

Mr. Finster's work emerged at a time when traditional definitions of folk art were being expanded to include a diverse range of faith-driven, stylistically raw work known as outsider art that was frequently made by Southern blacks and whites who eked out livings as farmers or repairmen. Mr. Finster both benefited from and helped define this change.

While other outsider giants like Martin Ramirez, Bill Traylor and Henry Darger were discovered after their deaths, Mr. Finster was very much alive. He reveled in the attention, seeing it as a means to spread the word of God.

He once told an interviewer that he was drawn to Elvis Presley not so much for his music but because "he could have won more souls than anybody in the world."

His work also dovetailed with developments in contemporary art, specifically the return of figurative painting in the 1980's.

Mr. Finster was born in 1916 in Valley Head, Ala., one of the 13 children of Samuel and Lula A. Finster. He left school at 14 after completing the sixth grade and became a Baptist preacher two years later. In 1935 he married Pauline Freeman, who survives him along with four daughters, Earlene Brown, Gladys Wilson and Beverly Finster, all of Summerville, and Thelma Bradshaw of Conyers, Ga.; a son, Roy Finster, of Summerville; and 15 grandchildren, more than 20 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

Over the next three decades he toured Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee preaching at tent revivals and conducting baptisms, weddings and funerals. In an effort to reach more people, he published his sermons in local newspapers at his own expense. He also began to write poetry, both about preaching and about his job in a fabric mill.

In 1941 he settled with his family in Trion, Ga., supporting them by doing carpentry, plumbing and even house building, as well as Finster's Arts & Crafts, which produced "family picture" clocks by the hundreds. He also began repairing and rebuilding bicycles to sell cheaply to families that could not afford new ones.

His art evolved organically out of his activities as a preacher and his growing body of self-taught artisanal knowledge. His first combinations of words and images occurred in the blackboard diagrams that he made while teaching Sunday school and called "chalkwork."

He began to build his first garden museum in Trion in 1945. In 1961 he bought land in Pennville, Ga., just outside Summerville, and began constructing the Paradise Garden. Over an infrastructure of bicycle frames, he fashioned a concrete surface of sculptured faces, figures and animals and expanses of exuberant mosaic incorporating bottle caps, jewelry, glass, machine parts, dashboard figures, even his son's tonsils in a jar.

In 1981 Mr. Finster expanded the garden in an adjacent lot with an abandoned church, converting the structure into the World's Folk Art Church by adding a 16-sided cupola that he built without plans. By the late 1970's, the garden was a pilgrimage for folk-art groupies and religious believers alike, the East Coast equivalent of Simon Rodia's great Watts Towers in Los Angeles.

Mr. Finster began to paint in 1976 after an image appeared on his thumb while he was painting a bicycle. His paintings, which have the same crowded lushness as the garden and are more intricately interwoven with language, were not limited to flat surfaces, but spread across objects, like shoes, metal barrels, gourds, even his white Cadillac.

Mr. Finster had his first solo show in a commercial gallery at Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago in 1979, and another at Ms. Kind's New York gallery in 1981. His work is in the collections of dozens of museums.

Until slowed by illness and rheumatism, Mr. Finster worked incessantly, carefully numbering each effort. A 1995 article in The New York Times began by noting that he was finishing up his 36,892nd piece of art. He said he slept in his clothes and subsisted on 20-minute naps, working around the clock.

In a 1989 monograph by J. F. Turner, Mr. Finster said he did not fear death. "Death is not my problem. My problem is getting all my jobs done well before I leave, for I know there's nothing to do in the holy land where I am going."

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