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A Century of Howard: America’s Folk Artist

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Local folk artist with national celebrity, Howard Finster was born December 2nd, 1916, in Valley Head, Alabama. He was one of 14 children and he saw his first religious vision at the tender age of three, when he witnessed his recently deceased sister Abbie Rose, walking down from the sky wearing a white gown. She told him, “Howard, you’re gonna be a man of visions.” 

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Finster was saved at the age of 13, and by the age of 16 he was preaching to a growing congregation. In spite of leaving the pulpit to pursue art full-time, Finster never quit preaching. He included Bible verses and angels on most all of his art work as his method of helping people remember the word of God.  

He moved to Chattooga County, Georgia in 1937 and the art community in Summerville is prepared to help the world celebrate the upcoming Centennial Birthday Celebration of Howard Finster.

Howard saw things; he was literally  a man of visions. These visions inspired him to create a universe of unusual paintings, sculptures, and drawings. A self-taught folk artist and preacher, he became one of the most important creative artists of the twentieth century. Finster numbered his paintings to keep track of how many he had completed because, according to Howard, God had asked him to do 5,000 paintings.  Finster saw fit to go far beyond that heavenly request and, before 1990, he was well into the tens of thousands. Finster also used his creative style to write and pick folk music on his banjo.

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In 1961, Finster began his most famous work, Paradise Gardens. A four-acre ‘Garden of Eden’, Paradise Gardens is devoted to the two things Howard loved the most, Jesus and art. He turned rescued trash into religious works like the Mirror House, The Bicycle Tower, the Bottle House and Hubcap Tower, along with historical and cultural figures from George Washington to Elvis. Finster even built his own Chapel on the property. 

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The Chapel at Paradise Gardens

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Even the ground at Paradise Gardens is artwork

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The Bottle House

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By the early 1980s Finster’s work had begun to gain fame outside of the country town of Summerville. He created album covers for rising musicians REM and the Talking Heads, and appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”  In spite of Howard’s growing fame, his ministry remained his primary focus. The Talking Heads album cover contained twenty-six religious scriptures. The album sold one million records in the first two and a half months after it was released, so Howard viewed this as twenty-six million verses shared into the world in barely eighty days. The talking Heads Album ‘Little Creatures’ went on to become double platinum, selling well over 2 million copies and was voted by Rolling Stones as album cover of the year. One would assume that made Jesus smile.

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Today Howard’s art fills hundreds of exhibits, including a permanent display at the High Museum in Atlanta. By the time of his death on October 22, 2001, Howard Finster had created more than 46,000 pieces of art and left a legacy that would last far beyond his passing.

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Here is a look at some of the celebrations planned for the century mark of Howard Finster:

On December 2nd from 7-8 PM the High Museum of Art, Atlanta will host “Howard Turns 100!” Join Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, for a behind the scenes look at the High’s Finster collection, a screening of the documentary “I Can Feel Another Planet in My Soul,” and “Georgia Remembers Finster,” a collection of video tributes about the legendary artist.

On December 3rd and 4th you can sign Howard’s 100th birthday card at the Rattling Gourd Arts Festival at Summerville Civic Center.

Paradise Gardens will also be hosting a centennial celebration birthday party for Howard Finster. The Paradise Garden Foundation will host a brunch, 10 AM-1 PM Saturday, Dec. 3. Finster biographer, Tom Patterson will be on hand to speak. All proceeds will go to the operation and upkeep of Finster’s greatest creation, Paradise Garden, which is located in Pennville. Brunch tickets, starting at $250 for two, include a year’s membership in the Foundation, free Garden admission, gift shop discount and newsletter recognition.

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While at Paradise Gardens enjoy a coke from the new Howard Coke machine.

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There is also a current exhibition at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va., “Happy Birthday, Howard! The Amazing World of the Reverend Howard Finster.” Celebrating the centennial of Howard’s birth (Dec. 2, 1916), the exhibit continues through Feb. 5, 2017. It’s drawn from collections including those of Georgian Thomas Scanlin and Folk Art Society of America director Ann Oppenhimer.

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Howard Finster left his mark on the world through folk art and his love of Jesus. Happy Birthday, Mr. Finster.

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Casie Bryant is the NW Georgia Regional Manager for AllOnGeorgia.

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