Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster

This exhibition was inspired by a 2007 visit Krannert Art Museum director Kathleen Harleman and I took to the home of Jim and Beth Arient in Naperville, Illinois. Their son, Matt Arient, then a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, had seen a small exhibition at Krannert Art Museum in 2006 featuring works by a self-taught Urbana artist, Robert Bannister. That show motivated Matt to arrange our visit to his parents’ home to view the family’s collection of self-taught visionary and outsider art.

The Arient Family Collection includes a breathtaking and wide-ranging assortment of works by self-taught artists—some renowned, others relatively unknown. Chief amongst their vast collection are the works by Reverend Howard Finster, a longtime friend and mentor to the Arients. The stories of their relationship with Finster made exciting travel conversation for our ride back to Central Illinois. But for me, the journey to this exhibition truly began in the spring of 1983 when I met Howard Finster at his Paradise Garden home in Pennville, Georgia.

Paradise Garden—with its colorful inlaid mosaics, recycled junk sculpture, and dazzling painted signs and buildings—was a vision to behold. Finster provided a guided tour with a non-stop narrative that was part-explanation, part-autobiography, and part-stream of consciousness recitation, complete with songs and poems. He made me feel welcome during my visit, and even invited me to move there and participate in his vision. I was tempted, but only stayed for a few hours, helping to sweep out the sawdust from Finsters’s recently expanded World’s Folk Art Church. He was preparing to perform a wedding. Later, after the service, I was invited to his studio, where we worked side–by-side into the night. Finster provided me with paper, paints, and whatever else I needed to make art, and advised me, “Make sure you put your name, address, and phone number on your artwork. That’s how people can find you.” He didn’t need much sleep; there was too much that needed doing and not enough time to do it. My head was spinning and Reverend Finster displayed no signs of slowing down when I made my way back to the town’s sole motel to try and put these experiences into perspective.

Finster said: “There will be rumors and writing about me probably till Jesus comes back. There will be stories about my being a fake, like there were about Noah. There will be stories that all the stuff Howard predicted is coming true. One of the frightening things is sometimes people start worshipping a man like that, and that is a very bad thing to do. They shouldn’t consider me nothing but as a piece on an automobile or an instrument. I’m a bicycle repairman. I’m a retired pastor, and God brought these visions upon me and I have these visions and have to tell ’em to somebody and this world is all I got to tell ’em to. My work has a spirit in it. I write it in a spirit and people read it in a spirit and that’s the spirit that unifies all humans.”

There is no consensus when it comes to evaluating the contributions that Howard Finster made to the world of art. Widely known and misunderstood, his position remains polarized - suspended somewhere between awe for his tireless, faith driven creativity and reluctance to accept his place in the pantheon of contemporary art.  Finster claimed a “mastery of 22 different trades” and his building skills and workmanship were key components to his development as an artist. His use of words and his understanding of their power to persuade influenced his creation of the objects and paintings that became messengers of God’s word and fulfilled Finster’s visionary prophesies. Each phase of his life journey revealed new and improved strategies to advance his calling. In the process, Finster amassed a unique body of work, numbering more than 46,000 pieces by his death at the age of 84 years on October 22, 2001.

When I returned to Paradise Garden in November 2008 while working on this exhibition, I was pleased to gaze again on the works of Reverend Finster revealed through the autumn foliage. Although his garden could use some tending, its beauty and mystery prevail. Finster’s legacy lives on in his works, scattered like seeds in the fall breeze. This prolific artist fulfilled God’s message to “paint sacred art” and in so doing created a visual language designed to entice and alarm his viewers. Like “God’s last red light,” Finster’s work provided a warning to all—one laced with humor and whimsy to help temper his apocalyptic message.

My hope is that this exhibition lends understanding and insight into Reverend Howard Finster’s journey from rural farm boy to one of the most widely known self-taught artists of the 20th century.

Glen C. Davies

This is a variation written originally for the exhibition Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster, organized by the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2010.