Paradise Regained

When he died at age eighty-four, Howard Finster left behind 46,991 pieces of artwork plus a garden containing two bicycle towers, one giant’s shoe, and a highway to heaven. But after decades of decay and dispute, Paradise Garden is finally being resurrected.

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?

Although art experts mention Finster’s intuitive color sense and depth perception, what made him the toast of elite art circles were his extraordinary imagination and relentless drive to create. At the time, contemporary art was moving away from pure abstraction to work with more of a message. It was primed for someone with a vision, and Finster’s fantastical images resonated far beyond folk art circles. Mainstream artists like Keith Haring, Mark Kostabi, and even fashion designer Todd Oldham became great admirers.

Some observers say Finster’s compulsiveness bordered on mental illness—citing his eightieth birthday party, when he asked an Elvis impersonator hired by the High Museum about the last time they’d “met” in the garden. But more often they credit genius with driving him to turn wipe rags and L’eggs panty hose containers and hubcaps and cat’s eye marbles into glimpses of eternity. The spire atop the World’s Folk Art Church is a toilet float painted silver. “He was the evangelical Dr. Seuss, without even trying,” wrote Phyllis Kind, his longtime Manhattan art dealer.

Born in 1916 in Valley Head, Alabama, Finster had his first vision at age three—of his deceased sister, Abbie Rose. Visions would fuel his ministry as he became a preacher and married, had five children, and moved to Georgia, where he worked at textile mills to supplement his income. In the early 1960s, he bought the Pennville property and opened a bicycle repair shop. Ever the showman, whether at a tent revival or in his own backyard, he started assembling a roadside attraction he called the Plant Farm Museum.

The project morphed from a sort of homespun Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (“Parona” fish! Tumor from human body! Live goats!) into an art park with elaborate mosaic sidewalks and concrete mountains, metal sculptures, and whimsical miniature buildings. Edith Wilson, the choir director’s wife at Finster’s church, Chelsea Baptist, was the first to alert outside media. Atlanta’s Channel 5 broadcast a report in 1975, soon followed by stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Esquire, which dubbed the place Paradise Garden.

The next year, Finster was working in his shop and saw a dab of paint on the tip of his finger morph into a human face. As he told the story, he heard a voice directing him to make sacred art, but like Moses before the burning bush, he protested that he was no artist. The voice insisted, “How do ya know? How do ya know?” So Finster pulled out a dollar bill and drew George Washington on a piece of paper.

Fueled by Coca-Cola, spoonfuls of instant coffee granules, and King B Sweet Twist tobacco, Finster started feverishly creating what would become 46,991 numbered works of art. He perfected an iconography of angels, demons, animals, spaceships, inventors, presidents, Marilyn, and Elvis—mostly painted on wooden cutouts covered over with Bible verses and sermons rendered in urgent all caps.

Tipped off by Esquire, UGA art professor Andy Nasisse asked Finster to give a talk about his work. The Georgia State Botanical Garden in Athens also invited him to do a show. “He blew everyone’s mind at the university,” recalls Nasisse. “Some described that one lecture as a year’s worth of education.” Other university professors were soon visiting Pennville, from schools like Wake Forest, Lehigh, and Virginia Tech.

Finster’s first important show was Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1770–1976—a traveling exhibition sponsored by the Georgia Council for the Arts, which brought initial national exposure to self-taught artists like Nellie Mae Rowe and Ulysses Davis as well as Finster. Then came the White House, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. In 1981 Finster received a $4,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the first ever awarded a self-taught artist. And in 1985 his work appeared in more exhibitions than any other artist, of any genre.

But the honor that most impressed the homefolk of Summerville was when Finster appeared on The Tonight Show. On August 4, 1983, Finster bounded out from behind the curtain in a three-piece navy pinstriped suit, upstretched arms hailing the crowd like a victorious politician. The country preacher hammed it up, mugging for the camera and nudging Ed McMahon like he’d been on television all his life. The audience clapped in time as he played a banjo and sang, “I’m just a little tack in the shingle of your roof, holding your house together.” Johnny Carson was tickled. The producers extended his segment, much to the dismay of comedian Rich Little, who was waiting backstage.

As with any Appalachian cottage industry, Finster’s family helped with production, preparing cutouts and painting background colors. When he began using photocopied messages and Sharpie markers, his methodology rankled many among the art cognoscenti, who agreed with Catherine Fox, longtime AJC art critic, that “Finster’s prolific nature has diluted his oeuvre.” Today it’s Finster’s first 5,000 works—and rarely the 42,000 that came after them—that bring five figures at auction.

Glen C. Davies, who curated a recent traveling Finster retrospective for the University of Illinois’s Krannert Art Museum, says, “It did get into being a horrendous production line, but you can’t judge a man by how commercial he was forced to become in his declining years. With the rise of interest in outsider art came all the hucksters. At one point, you could go into practically any major city and find racks of small Finster works.”

To Finster, the more souls he reached, the more sermons he delivered. By his calculation, his cover for the double-platinum Talking Heads album Little Creatures, which won Rolling Stone’s 1985 Cover of the Year, had twenty-six Bible passages on it, distributing 52 million messages for God. He happily collaborated with Chicago art dealer David Leonardis to reproduce his paintings on silkscreen prints, T-shirts, even neckties. Leonardis says, “Howard Finster very seriously looked into my eyes one day and told me that if any soul ever gets saved because of one of my prints, there will be an extra credit point in heaven for me [Leonardis].”

Despite the assembly line, Finster never became wealthy. He sold work too cheaply (often for as little as $35), supported family members, and sunk some $250,000 into expanding and repairing the garden. As his handlers shuttled him around the country in the 1990s, and as he grew increasingly weak from diabetes, arthritis, and kidney problems, the property degenerated. His youngest daughter Beverly took over operations, started charging admission, and sold art via a toll-free telephone number, but Paradise was never a moneymaker. Pieces of it started disappearing. One day Beverly was driving to an art history class at Kennesaw State University and passed a flatbed truck hauling away her father’s cement sculpture The Calf and the Young Lion. She went home and surrounded the property with a chain-link fence and barbed wire.

There are conflicting versions of who started to dismember the garden, most placing the blame on warring siblings. Finster’s only son, Roy, and two grandsons posted protest signs in 1995, six years before their patriarch’s death, including one that read, “Beverly Finster gets 70% of Howard’s art sales and other 4 children get nothing.” However, Beverly told the AJC that she’d netted only $8,000 the previous year.

Indisputably, Howard authorized sales of some garden elements. With his blessing, the High Museum eventually obtained works such as the concrete sculptures Weaned Child on the Cockatrice’s Den and The Calf and the Young Lion, the wooden cutout Howard on a Mule, and even sections of sidewalk. The museum created a permanent Finster gallery in 1996, where floor-to-ceiling photographic murals try to recapture what the High’s former folk art curator Susan Crawley calls “the visual cacophony” of it all.

Thomas Scanlin—a jeweler from Dahlonega who is arguably the foremost Finster collector, entrusted by Howard’s wife, Pauline, with many of her husband’s personal effects—bought painted pieces that were fast disintegrating outdoors. To ensure no one doubted Finster’s cooperation, the artist scrawled “Legal Art” across the sale documents, says Scanlin.

Art experts who had feted Finster in New York and D.C. began to opine that the gutted property should be allowed to decay—that visionary environments are by their very nature ephemeral, inevitably fated to disappear once their creators are gone. Ann Oppenhimer, president of the Folk Art Society of America, wrote, “Although Finster has created this Paradise, it appears that no one wants it.”

After Finster’s death in 2001, Leonardis moved from Chicago and served as the garden’s caretaker, trying to raise funds with theme park–sized ambitions. But before Leonardis could close the deal, Beverly sold the property to a nonprofit headed by Tommy Littleton, a preacher from Alabama. Beverly told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Leonardis was not a Christian and wouldn’t have fulfilled her father’s religious intentions. Leonardis, a fiery Italian Catholic, forced the paper to print his correction: “Howard’s job is to save your soul, and my job is to sell you valuable contemporary folk art, but I am indeed a Christian.”

Littleton—who is also a real estate manager, missionary, and Lotus enthusiast who works with Birmingham’s Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum—had grand ambitions. He discussed plans for a $2 million museum with the Woodruff Foundation, which ultimately did not fund the project. The Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation, which specializes in preserving visionary art environments, also visited and declined. In the end, Littleton relied mostly on volunteers, grassroots fundraising, and his own retirement funds for emergency repairs.

Then in late 2011, the mountain folk of Summerville got tired of waiting for flatlanders to save Paradise. With a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and private donations, Chattooga County bought the garden from Littleton’s nonprofit for $125,000.

Jordan Poole wasn’t ten years out of Chattooga High School (voted “Most Talented” in 2001) when he landed his dream job. The Savannah College of Art and Design graduate, with two degrees in historic preservation, had become a manager of restoration at Mount Vernon in Virginia. One of the perks was invitations to swanky parties in D.C. At one Italian Embassy function, the Vatican ambassador’s assistant asked Poole where he was from. “Summerville,” replied Poole, immediately thinking, Why in the hell didn’t I say Atlanta? But not only had the man heard of Poole’s hometown, he’d visited Paradise Garden. At that moment, Poole realized that if he had dedicated his career to preserving historic places that matter to people, how could he ignore the glaring need in his own town?

So Poole came back. First he worked for the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, where he and Littleton got Paradise Garden on the agency’s 2010 Places in Peril list—a move that helped Chattooga County attract the ARC grant. After the county purchased the property, the newly created Paradise Garden Foundation hired Poole full time in early 2012. By spring, the garden was listed on the National Register of Historic Places—a bureaucratic process initiated years earlier. By summer, Paradise Garden had received a $445,000 grant from ArtPlace and $225,000 from the Educational Foundation of America.

But raising money was easy compared to the engineering challenges. Paradise Garden is located in a swamp. The soggy bottomland was all the Finsters could afford, so Howard created streams to tame runoff from three natural springs and hauled in endless wheelbarrows of dirt. But without maintenance, the canals had filled with silt, miring the grounds in mud and mosquitoes. By cleaning out the channels and adding drains and gutters, Poole’s team dropped the water table seven inches.

Next up was stabilizing and cleaning the fifteen outbuildings. A year into the project, the Mirror House no longer leans on its stilts, and its reflective glass shingles are sparkling again. The Oaklan Barn and the Rabbit Hutch are jacked up out of the muck. The covered Rolling Chair Ramp has a new underground support system, which Poole likens to a “giant snowshoe.”

Giving a tour of the works in progress, Poole pauses before a green sign Finster painted on the lumpy concrete walk: “You only look back to see where you come from but victory is ahead.” Poole sighs and squares his shoulders. “That’s my pep talk.”

Today, though many of the wooden cutouts and signs are gone or faded, much of Finster’s hardscape remains—the two Bicycle Towers, the painted Cadillac, the Giant’s Shoe, the Ninevite and Highway to Heaven murals, the Bottle House, and, of course, the World’s Folk Art Church. Now cleared of trash (which, granted, is a relative term), workrooms reveal thousands upon thousands of nails holding supplies from chicken feet to an artificial leg to spark plugs. Honest to God, there are nails holding nails. Free of vines and moss, concrete mosaics expose bits of vases, toys, trophies, seashells, coins, dishes, photos, colored glass, and even a broken jar that once held a child’s tonsils. On a breezy day, tin ornaments and foil icicles tinkle merrily from eaves and ladders, windmills and turbines whir, chimes echo like church bells, and bits of mirror wink from sidewalks and the crooks of trees. Could anyone really look at all this and say it’s not enough?

Most Finster fans will have extra reason to celebrate at this year’s annual Finster Fest on June 8 and 9. Downtown Summerville has a few brightly painted new art galleries and restaurants. A burned-out hardware store has been leveled to create an amphitheater, which will host a beer garden during an evening block party. With any luck, the day will kick off with a Finster family ribbon-cutting at a new museum space being built next to Howard’s studio. As County Commissioner Jason Winters likes to say, “Ellijay has apples, Dahlonega has gold, and we’ve got Howard Finster.”

Yet not everyone is pleased to see Paradise Garden in the hands of Chattooga County. Turn onto Knox Street, a block before Paradise Garden’s new headquarters on Lewis, and you’ll see two houses that are part of the National Historic Site—both fenced off from the garden, one by chain link and the other by freshly painted wooden pickets. In fact, it’s easy to mistake either one for the entrance, though neither provides access to the garden.

At 177 Greeson Street is the Howard Finster Vision House, a cheerfully colorful museum opened in 2007 by Leonardis. This was the Finsters’ first home in Pennville, which Leonardis bought at a tax sale for $1,479.28, renovated, and filled with the family’s artwork. Throwing on his Chicago Cubs hat, Leonardis charges angrily that the county is deliberately excluding his “Yankee” operation. In fact, he says, for $1 million, he’d sell out and maybe move to Dubai, where he’s befriended Arab royalty through representing artist Matt Lamb.

84 Knox Street is headquarters for Paradise Gardens Park and Museum, Littleton’s nonprofit, which has not relinquished its mission either. This spring, a handwritten vinyl sign hung on the front fence, offering gallery space for rent with the ominous coda: “We do not endorse the deceptive and unethical practices of the Paradise Garden Foundation.” During the two-year sale process, Littleton shared his donor list and website with the county, expecting them to lease the garden back to him—only to discover he’d lost the lease to a “rival” nonprofit via the Summerville News. The preacher blames his ouster largely on his role as the garden’s chaplain, a position that he claims is no longer welcome.

According to Winters, the conflict is more geographic than theological. He praises Littleton’s efforts and acknowledges that the county originally expected the Alabama minister to run the property. But when the county applied for grants after the sale, he says, they quickly discovered that national foundations require local leadership.

Finster family members have divided loyalties. But Finster’s daughter Thelma Bradshaw, who lives in Conyers, says, “I would like to get them all to work together. There’s enough land to make everybody happy. If Daddy’s watching, it will be resolved.”

In some ways, the three corners of Finster’s city block are emblematic of his complex persona: Leonardis the promoter, Littleton the preacher, and Poole the artist. It has not been easy for the devotees Finster left behind to reconcile his contradictions—a familiar tale if you think about it.

Norman Girardot, a religion professor from Lehigh University, was a frequent visitor to Paradise Garden. He writes in his upcoming book, Howard Finster’s Story: The Myth and Meaning of a Stranger from Another World, that while he was building a memorial there, Finster told him to include “some holes in the base of the structure for any small creatures, especially snakes, seeking refuge.” Finster may have railed against sinners, but he was open to all comers.

Paradoxes were part of Finster’s magic, and the garden’s new caretakers will inevitably struggle to channel his irrepressible spirit. As Girardot says, “He was a shaman, able to create an environment that let others wonder at the strangeness and glory of what they were witnessing. It gave them hope that there is something better in the world, something stranger than going to Walmart.”

It’s doubtful Finster would’ve adhered to the rules of historic preservation any better than he followed the rules of art or religion. Given the choice between letter and spirit, Finster chose spirit every time. As Poole puts it, there’s a delicate balance between authenticity and vibrancy. (The foundation is still debating whether just to stabilize the pieces that are intact, to add replicas of missing objects, or to use technology like QR codes and holograms to fill in the gaps.) For Finster fans, the site will surely be an inspiring tribute. But without Finster’s personal force, will the place still enchant the uninitiated?

Standing in Finster’s freshly edited workshop on a sunny spring day, Sherer is beginning to think so. He looks around in wonder at the barely controlled chaos. “This is a portrait of the interior of Howard Finster’s mind. This is the best it’s looked, ever.” He has another reason to smile, as the High Museum has just acquired one of his own paintings. “Howard and I used to laugh about being the outsider artists, and now here we both are in the High Museum,” he says. But Sherer shouldn’t be surprised. As he described his mentor nearly thirty years ago, “This is what you get when you cross an extraterrestrial with a Southern Baptist minister.”