One sunny Sunday afternoon almost thirty years ago, Robert Sherer and two coworkers from the Lefont Theaters piled into a junker car to make the ninety-minute drive up to Pennville, a tiny Appalachian community where churches outnumber stoplights on the outskirts of Summerville. The punk rockers were on a “pilgrimage to Paradise”—the otherworldly garden created by Howard Finster, the Baptist preacher whose transformation into an artist had made him a quasi-celebrity. The year was 1984, and Finster’s work was then appearing in both the Venice Biennale and a hit video for R.E.M., a band with unassailable hipster bona fides. At twenty-six, Sherer was a “foaming-at-the-mouth rabid atheist” and a gay activist. A heavy drug user, he was fascinated by Finster’s surrealistic imagery, hallucinations being something he could understand. But Sherer never guessed the fundamentalist folk artist was about to become his mentor.
Like Finster, Sherer had grown up on a farm in rural Alabama. When he and his buddies arrived, almost immediately Sherer and the preacher wandered off to inspect the garden’s late-summer bounty, discussing how to prune grape vines and leaving Sherer’s bewildered city friends behind. Near the end of the day, Finster, who appreciated help making the wooden cutouts that were his hallmark, turned to Sherer and said, “So you’re pretty good with tools? What about a jigsaw?” Turns out the lanky kid with the New Wave haircut had grown up using jigsaws.
For the next few years, Sherer spent weeks at a time in the garden, camping out in a sweltering room inside the rickety World’s Folk Art Church, the grand four-tiered, wedding cake–shaped chapel that is the garden’s signature structure. He planted flowers, pruned vines, and dodged snakes. (After one harrowing escape, the trembling Sherer ran to warn Finster about a copperhead the size of a man’s arm. “Oh, him,” Finster replied.) The college dropout taught Finster art history from a tattered copy of Janson’s History of Art. Finster taught the young rebel about tolerance, ingenuity, and creative marketing—deliberately misspelling signs like “Seppents of the Wilderness” to amp up his kitsch appeal.
The visits served as rehab for Sherer, a refuge from the drugs and frenetic life of Midtown Atlanta. AIDS was starting to claim his friends—former classmates from the Atlanta College of Art, neighbors at Pershing Point, employees at Lefont—terrifying Sherer almost to the point of suicide. But in tending to Paradise, Sherer found salvation, if not of the eternal variety Finster espoused.
For a long time Finster didn’t suspect Sherer was gay. Once, Finster asked him to plant flowers around a little shack festooned with verses condemning sodomy. With passive-aggressive aplomb, Sherer ringed it with touch-me-nots. But the day Finster finally recognized the nature of Sherer’s relationship with his then-partner, the ever-garrulous preacher grew quiet. Finally, at the end of the day, Sherer says Finster came to him and announced, “A man has needs. I’m not sure it’s up to we mortals to sort all that out. It’s God’s work.”
In 1986 Sherer went off to the Rhode Island School of Design, where the displaced Southerner spent hours talking with Finster by phone. By the time Sherer returned to Atlanta in 1992, he had heard rumors about dealers, agents, and kinfolk exploiting his aging friend, neglecting Finster’s verdant masterpiece. Sherer couldn’t bear to return, so their relationship dwindled to exchanging holiday cards. Finster died of congestive heart failure in 2001.
Now a tenured art professor at Kennesaw State University and an internationally respected artist, Sherer has always refused to own any Finster artwork—though pieces could fetch tens of thousands of dollars even in the 1980s. To him, Finster is priceless.
The memories resurfaced in Sherer’s life when UGA and Little Five Points’ 7 Stages Theatre produced a play in 2012, Hidden Man, about his and Finster’s friendship. Two years ago, as the project progressed, Sherer got up the nerve to revisit Pennville. The garden’s disrepair left him in tears. So last year, when he heard that Chattooga County was rehabilitating the site, Sherer was understandably skeptical. Would county promoters turn it into Disneyland? Was there enough left to save? Could anyone resurrect the body without its beating heart?