Paradise lost? Changing times at Finster’s famous garden
Perhaps it would be better if they did pave paradise, if we were left with only a smooth parking lot, torn photographs and faded memories. Or, to quote Robert Frost via S.E. Hinton, “Nothing gold can stay.” Still, even in its inevitable, irrevocable decay, the Reverend Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens remains a remarkable testimonial to the power of creative vision, and to the considerable delight with which it may be executed.
Rev. Finster began work on Paradise Gardens, his second roadside attraction, in 1970. It occupies 2.5 acres of reclaimed wetlands in the community of Pennville, Georgia, and is constructed of an unimaginable collection of objects — shards of glass, abandoned cars, stray building materials — which might be had for free in rural Georgia. Now 80 years old, Finster hasn’t worked on the garden in some time (though he recently completed his 40,000th painting), and it has fallen into the care of his children and grandchildren.
Largely through the interest of bands such as R.E.M. and the Talking Heads, both of whom commissioned album-cover artwork, Finster has been the most visible folk artist in the United States over the past two decades. He has executed covers for Rolling Stone and Time, he has been interviewed by “60 Minutes”, and his work is housed in the finest folk art collections in the world.
Ah, this will require a digression into nomenclature. Folk art often is used to describe painted geese and other accouterments of the suburban faux-country hausfrau. The term may also be used to describe dia de los muertos gimcracks from Mexico, or the African handicrafts for sale at every street fair around the world. In the fine art world, the phrases folk art, outsider art, self-taught, and art brute are used variously and with occasional precision to describe an ill-defined category of naive art. Some of the artists are institutionalized, some are in the grip of visions, some are simply untutored.
The Rev. Howard Finster is an untrained artist who has called himself “a man of visions.” Since he began painting in the mid-’70s — the final form of his largely self-taught ministry — he has been in the grip of an extraordinary passion that has kept him up late nights and produced a striking body of work. Working typically with brightly hued house paint, Finster painted everything from household objects to bottles, but principally hunks of plywood. Most of his work is drawn from the Bible (with dollops of history and the occasional space alien), and much of Paradise Gardens is festooned with hand-lettered scripture. Like the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Paradise Gardens is as important of a folk art environment as the United States has. (An environment is what happens when an artist turns his will to the land and buildings under his control.)
At its peak, Paradise Gardens came to be the focus of enormous artistic energy, and everyone from local students to the late New York graffiti artist Keith Haring took their turn working there. The grounds housed a grand variety of sculptures, buildings either created or transformed to meet the artist’s will, a chapel where Finster placed his coffin and invited guests to place notes of good will, and a long gallery of artwork.
The signs of decay had just set in when I first visited three years ago. Finster had just sold an important hunk of sidewalk to a museum, or a major collector, or somebody. See, before he began building Paradise Gardens, he had fixed bicycles for a living. One of the first things he did in the grip of his new vision was to set his bicycle repair tools in concrete to fashion a walkway. That piece is now…somewhere else, as are many others.
Jealousies within the family were also fomenting. Only one son (Roy) and one grandson (Michael) carry the family name, but there are many other siblings, and most of them have at one time or another created folk art. It does not help matters that only Michael, who is prodigiously gifted, has anything like Rev. Finster’s talent.
And so, when I first visited, there had been recent vandalism, paintings on the grounds defaced by an unknown hand (probably a disenchanted family member). Growing fame had brought with it the problem of theft, for the grounds were only casually fenced then. Finster’s artwork was also beginning to slip. He had largely abandoned the use of paint in favor of more easily applied markers and such (one must enjoy the irony that folk art now emerges from whatever’s easily available at Wal-Mart), and age had robbed his hand of its steadiness and his visions of their vibrance.
But the garden itself remained a remarkably beautiful, complicated, and tranquil place. It is possible, still, to spend hours simply pondering the symbolism of the various found objects that find themselves aligned in a concrete sculpture or a walkway. And it has, even today, a rare grandeur. One is privileged to bask in such a concentrated vision, to respect the prodigious amount of work involved in its creation.
Well, Paradise Gardens is fenced in now, there is finally an admission charge to help with upkeep, and video cameras monitor guests. The sale of Howard’s work is now in the hands of his daughter, Beverly, who immediately doubled the prices. Most of the early Finster creations have been stolen, removed, or hang in some decay; the art that now adorns the two-story gallery above the gardens — gifts to the Reverend — would be in the dollar bin at most thrift shops. And in that building, most of all, the swamp is reasserting itself. (Contemporary Finster family works are for sale inside the house at the entrance, though the display is more like a dimestore than a gallery.)
The entrance has been moved, not for the first time. Somebody has placed some concrete animals on the lawn there, and that artless diorama may be the worst atrocity yet committed to the grounds. The remaining artwork now bears the blows of an ongoing family battle and its assorted treaties. Outside the fence is a house where Roy Finster (and, until recently, his son Michael) sells his own art. In what seems a peace offering, Michael painted a version of his “Jacob’s Ladder” on one wall, dated 1994, but that may be the last new piece in the garden. Graffito comment on much of what remains on the grounds, including a bitter note on the back of one scripture board that Roy did no work on the garden until 1992.
In short, the snake has hit paradise.
None of this can be altogether unexpected. Rev. Finster’s visions and talents are unique and are not shared by his entire family. Further, most folk artists conceive their work as craft, not art, and like most manufacturers see no harm in cheapening it to fit the desires of a mass audience. Finster’s work has brought notoriety and a kind of prosperity to an entire clan who might otherwise have far less. It is simply too much to hope, or expect, that money would not change the dynamics of the work and the family.
And yet there is hope still. Michael Finster’s work takes up one small wall in the last room of the family gallery. You can read his frustration and unhappiness there, and his talent. He is in a kind of transition as an artist, and he is now trying a variety of styles and subjects. Rare muscle, vision and glory still haunts his work, though it is clearly troubled and searching.
The Gardens are undeniable, too. Nature will some day have its way with that land, and it will again turn to swamp. The buildings will decay, and the cement will crumble; that is, if internecine battles do not hasten that process. But for the moment what remains…remains spectacular. Only paging through books and scanning old photos of the Gardens do you appreciate what has been lost, how much color and unbridled joy has turned to gray.
Rev. Howard Finster’s coffin is still in the chapel, though it is now dusty and competes for space with a lawnmower and some trash. With Finster nearer to death now than when he set the coffin atop that old desk, perhaps its power as a metaphor touches too close to home. Or perhaps Paradise Gardens is a more eloquent and continuing sermon than we had thought: Dust to dust.
Paradise Gardens Park & Museum is about an hour and a half north of Atlanta. Take I-75 North, then follow the signs to Rome (state Highway 411 is quickest), and from Rome to Summerville, about 25 miles north on state Highway 27. Pennville is an unincorporated community immediately adjacent to Summerville. There’s a sign to Paradise Gardens on your right about a mile after the sign for the Pennville Baptist Church. If you drive past a graveyard, or into Trion, you’ve gone too far. Admission is $3, free Tuesdays, $5 Sundays. There is also a single hotel room for rent off the main office.