Three miles outside the quiet town of Summerville, Georgia, artist Howard Finster’s legacy sits off a narrow dirt road. The neighborhood, and many of the neighbors themselves, have been there for years— long before Finster made his home there, and long after.
Glamourous it is not, which perhaps makes Paradise Garden even more of a treasure: never would you guess what lies in the backyard, what Finster —a simple man, and an artist in the purest sense— spent decades building with his bare hands.
“He was the grandfather of modern folk art,” says Jordan Poole, the executive director of Paradise Garden Foundation, Inc., which was established to preserve, maintain, and showcase the garden. “Howard’s goal was really simple: to get his messages of faith and love out to the world.”
Paradise Garden is a breathtaking mish-mash of structures and sculptures, paintings and poems, walkways and bridges. Every part of the garden is made up of its own many parts —a mosaic within a mosaic.
Finster best described the place himself in one of his poems, simply and soulfully scrawled with a paintbrush across the garden’s church:
I took the pieces you threw away,
Put them together by night and day.
Washed by the rain.
Dried by the sun.
A million pieces all in one.
In his eyes, nothing was trash: Coca-Cola bottles, empty candy boxes, spare marbles, cracked plastic action figures. Meandering concrete walkways are studded with mismatched mirror and glass; a rusted iron headboard is the railing to a small bridge. If it added movement or color, if it reflected light, if it could serve any purpose at all, it had a place in Finster’s garden.
“That was the genius of Howard,” Poole says. “He was a common guy, and what he used was familiar and relatable. That got his message across and made it relevant to everyone.”
Finster, the Unlikely Artist
The place is an anomaly, and Finster, an enigma, in the best possible way. Relatively uneducated— he was only schooled through the sixth grade— and with no formal training, Finster accomplished feats of art and architecture of such creative wonderment that they seem to have been divinely inspired. And as he tells it, they were.
Born in 1916 in Valley Head, Alabama, Finster grew up on the family farm where he claimed to experience otherworldly visions that continued into adulthood. He eventually became a Baptist pastor while growing his family in Chattooga County, Georgia, near the Alabama border.
But as life passed by, he came to believe that his sacred calling had less to do with preaching and more to do with art. He began creating his first “garden park museum” in the late 1940s in Trion, Georgia— a precursor to his Paradise Garden masterpiece. He ran out of space and moved to Pennville, Georgia, in 1961, where he retired from preaching to become a bicycle repairman and full-time artist, dedicated to Paradise Garden.
“Howard became known as the preacher that did things preachers don’t do,” Poole says. “He was creating art, and it wasn’t traditional art, so there could be a little bit of a stigma attached to it.”
Pennville is about a three-hour drive from the university town of Athens, Georgia, where the counter-culture scene was going strong in the 1980s and 1990s. Finster caught the attention of hipsters and musicians there, and his local popularity quickly exploded into a national following. But that didn’t change Finster, or his purpose.
“R.E.M did their first music video in the garden, and Howard worked with the Talking Heads and the B52s,” Poole says. “He appeared on Johnny Carson and inspired a lot of different kinds of artists. But he had no airs about him: he was just Howard, and he made everyone he met feel like they were his best friend.”
Paint by Numbers
At a time in life when most people are winding down, Finster was just getting started. He didn’t pick up a paintbrush until 1976, more than a decade after he had begun his work at Paradise Garden. Finster said he had a vision that appeared on the tip of his finger: a small face telling him to “paint sacred art.” He believed God wanted him to create 5,000 paintings to spread the gospel, so to keep track, he instituted a handwritten numbering system that can be seen on each piece. By the time he died in 2001, Finster’s enormous body of work comprised more than 46,000 paintings.
“They weren’t fancy,” Poole says. “He used what he had on hand, what he could get at the hardware store: tractor enamel for the paint, and cheap plywood for a canvas. He’d write his messages across them with a Sharpie.”
There’s an ethereal folkiness to it, a childlike primitivism that’s powerful in its simplicity. Many would argue, however, that “folk art” isn’t the most accurate classification of Finster’s work. It’s also been called outsider art: work created by people who are not within the traditional boundaries of arts culture, such as children or psychiatric patients.
Poole believes it falls more squarely under another category: visionary art, which, according to the American Visionary Art Museum, refers to art that is self-taught and “begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul.” Visionary art differs from folk art in that the latter is learned— a tradition of sorts, passed down through generations.
“To me, it’s simple: Howard was a visionary artist. He had visions, and they are what motivated him to make art,” Poole says.
A Walk through the Garden
Even on a cloudy day, Paradise Garden is bright. Although Finster is known largely for his paintings, they aren’t necessarily what stand out at the garden— at least, not at first. Many of them are no longer there, and those that are left are mostly replicas: the originals were preserved elsewhere or given away, and others were probably looted, as the space lay unattended for years.
But what does catch your eye is the church Finster built—and he wanted it that way. It’s a large, round structure, 40 feet high and topped with a cupola.
“He built it with his own two hands and called it the World’s Folk Art Church,” Poole says. “It’s the most iconic structure in the garden. It was supposed to serve as a beacon, to draw people in.”
It’s not open to the public because its foundation has been compromised, but most of the other buildings in the garden are structurally sound or have been reinforced. The meditation chapel, which sits to the left of the church, is a good way to get acquainted with Finster’s mind and spirit before becoming completely immersed in the garden.
Inside the open-air space, a replica of a Finster painting – a brightly-colored angel – hangs at the front. The walls are covered in “thought cards,” square pieces of whitewashed plywood with quotes and Bible verses neatly painted in black.
The Rolling Chair Ramp lies just beyond, designed by Finster to allow handicapped visitors to view the garden. Inside the ramp is the Exhibition House, a long, narrow corridor of thought cards, paintings, photos, magazine articles, handwritten memories and poems – a kind of motion picture featuring Finster’s life: the things he did, the places he went, the people he met.
The end of the ramp is only the beginning of Paradise Garden. There’s Finster’s bicycle tower, a massive conical pile of spare bike parts – wheels, hubcaps, handlebars – with pink native rose growing out the sides and through the top; a soft and intentional touch that contrasts sharply, and beautifully, with the rusted metal.
And then there’s a house made of Coke bottles cemented together; a life-size sculpture of a boot, modeled after Finster’s own; a tall metal mailbox for letters written to God; a small, one-room house whose walls, inside and out, are made of mirrors; and everywhere, works of fellow artists—both famous and unknown—who knew Finster as an influencer and as a friend.
Lost and Found
It would take many hours to see and appreciate everything Paradise Garden has to offer—and there could be other work yet to be discovered. Finster built his garden on swampy land; when he stopped tending to it in the late 1990s, it was quickly overcome with silt. The Paradise Garden Foundation has worked in partnership with Chattooga County over the past several years to restore the garden, and they continue to unearth new treasures.
“When we started the project, we were overwhelmed. Probably 60 percent of the mosaic sections of the garden were completely silted in,” Poole says. “But we’ve uncovered a lot of stuff, so people from across the world can enjoy it.”
Along the way, some have wondered if the garden should remain untouched; if it should return to the earth, as Finster left it. But Poole believes otherwise.
“Howard was speaking to people with his art,” Poole says. “This was meant to be seen.”
And the artist himself would probably agree.
“My garden is a way for me to get my message out all over the world. And that’s my responsibility,” Finster once wrote. “Someday, sometime, people on this planet are going to realize that they need what Howard Finster’s got, whether it’s religion, whether it’s art, or whether it’s building a garden.”