Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens
God waited nearly 60 years before he called Howard Finster. Howard was in his back yard repair shop, fixing a bicycle, when he looked at a paint smudge on his finger and had a vision of a human face. The voice of God commanded Howard to "paint sacred art," and for the next quarter-century he did just that.
Howard transformed his yard into what he called Paradise Gardens, four acres of quirky buildings, junk-studded pathways, and sculptures made from other people's trash. He dated and numbered every one of his 48,000+ artworks, usually colorful plywood cutouts covered with busy designs and Bible verses in tractor enamel paint. Howard was known for his 2-D Coke bottles and angels, spaceships and smiling clouds. Caps and hats often had human faces, like Howard's finger.
Celebrities and gallery owners flocked to Paradise Gardens -- as did couples in love, who Howard married by the hundreds in his "World's Folk Art Church." Notes painted by Howard on the Gardens' walls and windows read like a resume. "This painting is in Library of Congress." "Life magazine publishes two full pages, Howard and his work." "Out here is the Bicycle Tower which R.E.M. used in the video Radio Free Europe." Howard Finster was the first outsider artist to become an insider.
And then he died. Fans built a memorial outside Howard's church on what would have been his 85th birthday. Paradise Gardens fell into a deep sleep. For over a decade visitors had to make an appointment for someone to drive out and unlock the fence.
In 2010 Jordan Poole, who was just a local teenager when Howard was alive, got Paradise Gardens listed as a "Place in Peril" with the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Local residents, who'd formerly been skeptical of Howard's junk art Eden, contributed thousands of dollars to have the property purchased by the county. In 2012 Paradise Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and reopened to the public on a regular schedule.
Jordan showed us around. "Some folks still think it's a trash dump that should be bulldozed," he said, walking past a sculpture made of Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottles. "I'm still selling my parents on the project."
Although much of the Gardens' art was sold by Howard to museums and collectors -- or squirreled away by the Paradise Garden Foundation for exhibit at some future date -- enough remains to make a visit worthwhile, especially for those who want to catch the swampy Finster vibe. Howard's studio still has its templates and saw blades, paintbrushes and plywood, just as he left them. The repair shop where Howard had his visit from God is an archeologist's dream, piled high with rusted bicycle parts and debris. The World's Folk Art Church, built by Howard to resemble a wedding cake, is off-limits -- still too dangerous, said Jordan -- but the Finster memorial beside it looks just as it did in 2001.
A number of the fresher-looking works of art in the Gardens are stencil-guided copies, painted in the 1990s under Howard's supervision by one of his many sons and grandsons, or in the 2000s as tributes by other artists. But Howard's 1980s-vintage art cars are original, as is the Meditation Chapel with Howard's original casket, and the mosaic garden embedded with mirrors, marbles, plates, toys, and machine parts. Hundreds of Howard's carefully lettered sermon signs and Bible verses remain, instructing visitors from beyond the grave. "I built this Garden to tell folks about Jesus and to warn them that He is coming back," reads one. "I knew the World began with a beautiful Garden. I felt it should end with one."
"We have so much that Howard left," said Jordan. "Now we have a great chance to get the place fixed up." The goal, he said, is to capture the essence of Paradise Gardens in its heyday, when Howard would welcome visitors at the front porch of his studio. "We want to have that authenticity, that very southern aspect," said Jordan. "We want you to be able to sit in the chair where he used to sit and talk with Kim Basinger."