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Howard Finster: The master of outsider art

Howard Finster was a master of outsider art. A Baptist minister by trade, Biblical themes can be found in many of his works, giving them an undeniable artistic density, a real purpose. Even if you don’t agree with the religious undertones of some of Finster’s most striking works, it would be a shame to cast them off, as they’re a thing of uncomplicated beauty, evoking the pastoral serenity of his home state of Georgia. 

Famously, Finster claimed to be inspired by God to spread the gospel’s message through the design of his iconic folk art sculpture garden, Paradise Garden. One of the most prolific artists of all time, Finster produced over 46,000 pieces of art in his long life. Outsider art, naïve art, and visionary art all comprise his enormous collection.

Finster was born in Valley Head, Alabama, in 1916, to parents Lula and Samuel and was one of 13 children. He said that he had his first vision at only three years old, and saw his recently deceased sister, Abbie Rose, walking from out of the sky wearing a white gown, who told him: “Howard, you’re gonna be a man of visions.” These visions would give him the adequate inspiration he needed to create such a vast amount of art. 

Driven by his Dewey Cox-esque visions, Finster began preaching at 16, and by 1940, he was a full-time pastor. Shortly after moving to the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Fort Payne, Alabama, Finster moved into full-time art. He constructed his first garden museum in Trion, Georgia, sometime in the late 1940s. Its centrepiece was an exhibit discussing the “inventions of mankind’, with Finster hoping to display one of everything that had ever been invented, ranging from a model of a church to a duck pond. 

Given that the task of his exhibit was limitless, Finster inevitably ran out of land in Trion in 1961, and moved to Pennville, Georgia, to an estate of four acres. Here, he built The Plant Farm Museum to “show all the wonderful things o’ God’s Creation, kinda like the Garden of Eden”.

Featuring famous attractions such as the ‘Bible House’, ‘The Hubcap Tower’ and the five-story ‘Folk Art Chapel’, in Pennville, Finster started to seriously realise his vision. Notably, the place is adorned with Biblical slogans as Finster thought that “they stuck in people’s heads better that way”.

Finster eventually retired from preaching in 1965, focusing all of his efforts on The Plant Farm Museum. Then, some 11 years later, in 1976, he received another vision. He recalled: “One day I was workin’ on a patch job on a bicycle, and I was rubbin’ some white paint on that patch with this finger here, and I looked at the round tip o’ my finger, and there was a human face on it… then a warm feelin’ come over my body, and a voice spoke to me and said, ‘Paint sacred art.'”

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If by this point, you’re thinking that Finster was solely concerned with the Bible and spreading the word of God, you’d be incorrect in your assumption. His works feature a wide range of icons and historical figures such as Elvis Presley, George Washington and, at times, even aliens. Additionally, he also covered war and politics at points in his work. 

A master of detail, his works are some of the most striking ever produced by an outsider artist. They use flat picture planes without perspective, giving his message a universal feel. One of the biggest tasks Finster ever undertook was the 5,000 paintings that God allegedly asked him to undertake as a means of spreading his word. Finster numbered all of them, and miraculously, he finished the task right before Christmas 1985 and would continue to paint and catalogue his works until the day he passed away on October 22nd, 2001. By the time of his death, they were numbered in their tens of thousands. 

It was in the mid-1970s when Finster started gaining publicity for his work. In 1975, Atlanta publication WAGA published a piece on him, and afterwards, Esquire ran a piece changing the name of The Plant Farm Museum to Paradise Garden, and this name would stick. Afterwards, things would pick up Finster. He made his first exhibition appearance in 1976, and crafted four paintings for the Library of Congress a year later. In 1984, he truly arrived when he appeared at the eminent Venice Biennale — reflecting just how lauded Finster’s art is, several of his pieces of displayed by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

It would be two of the most iconic indie bands who helped to bring Finster’s work to a wider audience, cementing his status as one of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. Georgia-based rockers R.E.M. filmed the video for their debut single ‘Radio Free Europe’ at Paradise Gardens in 1983. Adoring of his work, in 1984, frontman Michael Stipe collaborated with Finster on the painting that is the front cover of their sophomore effort, Reckoning. Tied to R.E.M. forevermore, the band wrote ‘Maps and Legends’ from Fables of the Reconstruction as a tribute to the artist. 

After seeing his work with R.E.M., legendary New York outfit Talking Heads commissioned a painting for the cover of Little Creatures in 1985, which was voted by many publications as the album cover of the year. This would lead to other commissions from artists such as Memory Dean and Adam Again. Of producing the Talking Heads album, Finster said: “I think there’s 26 religious verses on that first cover I done for them. They sold a million records in the first two and a half months after it come out, so that’s twenty-six million verses I got out into the world in two and a half months”.

Howard Finster brought outsider art into the mainstream and helped to make art a more accepting place where anyone could have a go. Unwavering in his beliefs, he stayed true to his convictions right until the end, giving his work a character that is timeless. 

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