Howard Finster, master of Paradise Gardens

Posted by | November 8, 2010

Howard Finster (ca. 1915-2001) described himself as a Stranger from Another World, a Messenger from God, a Man of Visions, a second Noah, and God’s Last Red Light on Planet Earth.

This unlikely candidate for celebrity status on the post-modern art scene became known to millions of people by the end of his life. His paintings, sculptures, constructions, and other works have been shown in prestigious museums and galleries from SoHo to Australia and from Los Angeles to the Venice Biennale.

His grinning visage and eccentric art have appeared in dozens of national magazines and newspapers, on network television, and on the covers of rock albums. Finster was as well known for his winningly folksy, loquacious manner as for his obsessive artistic vision.

Reverend Howard Finster in the 1940s.

The Rev. Howard Finster (in dark suit fourth from left) baptizes the faithful at Mentone, AL, in the early 1940s.

He became something of a guru to thousands of academically trained young artists, ambitious collectors of outsider art, musicians, and others who made the pilgrimage to Pennville to meet him and to visit the two-acre Paradise Garden that he spent fifteen years building in his backyard.

Born in DeKalb County, AL in 1915, Howard was one of thirteen children growing up (and sometimes dying off before they grew up) on a remote forty-acre farm in the shadow of Lookout Mountain. He and his family were humble, self-sufficient country folk — proud people who took care of their own and didn’t pay much attention to what went on outside the territory where they lived and worked.

At the age of three, like a toddling Ezekiel, Howard saw his first vision. Although his parents weren’t regular churchgoers, he was later encouraged by a schoolteacher to attend Christian revival services, and at age thirteen he got saved. Two years later Howard “got called by God to become a preacher.” Armed with only his faith, good intentions, down-home demeanor, and a sixth-grade education, Howard set out to preach the Gospel and “bring the people of Earths Planet back to God before its too late.” In those days he thought of himself simply as a dedicated tenderfoot evangelist from the Alabama hills. It wasn’t until much later that the Lord revealed to him his special mission as a “Stranger from Another World,” sent to earth to save souls through sacred art.

Finster began his preaching career in the 1930s, exhorting sinners to repent and testifying for Jesus from rustic church altars, at tent revivals and river baptisms, and even from atop his automobile on small-town streets. By the time he was in his mid-twenties he had established enough of a reputation on the revival circuit that he “got called” to a regular job at the first of a dozen small rural churches he would pastor over a period of forty years.

For most of his pastoring career, Finster supplemented the meager income his churches provided by traveling the countryside as a roving evangelist, working as a handyman, repairing small engines and bicycles, and holding down jobs in the textile mills. It’s surprising enough that he could find any time away from his demanding schedule and responsibilities of keeping his wife and five children fed, clothed, and sheltered. Even more surprising is what he chose to do with that spare time.

From childhood Finster had been fascinated with making things. As a youngster he delighted in creating miniature architectural environments of sticks, stones, and anything else he could find. Long before leaving the family farm he set up a makeshift woodworking shop to produce ornamental wooden bottles and jugs. Then, in the late 1940s, when he was raising children and preaching regularly, he returned to building small-scale architectural environments.

Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens

Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens.

Around this time, Finster began work on his first “garden” in the small yard behind the house and grocery store he had recently built in the little community of Trion, GA. This environmental work–which its creator called a “museum park” in those days–consisted of several miniature and full-scale buildings, an eight-foot-tall Christian cross made of bricks and cement, various hand-lettered signs, a wading pool and duck pond, and an “exhibit house,” which served as home for sixty pet pigeons as well as for a constantly expanding display of castoff items intended to “represent the inventions of mankind.” The latter apparently encompassed virtually every tool and product known to humankind.

After putting more than a decade of work into the garden, Finster began looking for a new and larger location for his “museum park.” Frustrated by his inability to acquire adjoining land for his ambitious roadside attraction and by the fact that the new highway through Trion had unexpectedly bypassed his place, he bought and renovated an old house in the unincorporated community of Pennville, just south of Trion.

He moved his family there and started filling in the swamp that composed most of his new backyard. It was here, in the early 1960s, that Finster began work on the second, expanded version of his visionary outdoor museum–an idiosyncratic realm that came to consist of makeshift monuments, found-object constructions and displays, bottle houses, and hand-painted religious signs, interspersed with narrow streams and pools of channeled swamp-water and a wide assortment of flowering and fruit-bearing plants. Originally bestowed by its creator with the name “Plant Farm Museum,” this outrageous environmental work came to be popularly known as “Paradise Garden,” and as it grew more elaborate in the 1970s, it began to attract attention from the world outside northwestern Georgia and northeastern Alabama.

excerpt from Howard Finster, Stranger from Another World, by Howard Finster & Tom Patterson, Abbeville Press, New York, 1989

One Response

  • Denise Olson says:

    I enjoyed your article on the amazing Howard Finster. My mother’s family has lived in that part of Georgia for generations and summer vacations almost always included a visit to his Paradise Garden – although that was not what we used to refer to it.

    I haven’t been there in ages, but I hear from others that the garden has suffered since his death. I’d rather remember the place as it was so I doubt I’ll ever visit again. Thanks for reminding me of fun times past.

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