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The Rev. Howard Finster: How Great Thou Art? : From His Back-Yard Masterpiece to L.A. Galleries, the Georgia Painter Is Spreading the Good Word

“Only God knows why I was chosen to do this work,” says the Rev. Howard Finster, the 72-year-old self-taught painter from Summerville, Ga. “This work” is his output of crudely painted interpretations of the Holy Scriptures that has taken the folk art world by storm.

“All I know is that I have visions of other worlds--and if I didn’t have visions of other worlds, I’d be miserable because I can’t adapt to a world like this,” he says in a voice seasoned by a life spent in the Deep South. “I had a father, a mother and 13 sisters and brothers and I watched them all suffer and die because that’s the kind of world this is. The only way out is to have faith in another world.

“I have visions of planets where people don’t live on food and air! I had a vision of going 6,000 miles into this Earth! I had a vision of going to hell! Howard Finster has walked through hell! And my visions is facts! But this is the most insane world I’ll ever be able to reach.”

Working himself up into an evangelical fury, he continues: “God says that your body is a holy temple and when you defile it he’ll destroy it. People are destroying their bodies so they got AIDS and all that stuff. I have a little banty hen down in my garden and she’d fight a dog 10 times her size to protect her little ones. She would die for her chickens and we’ve got women that throw their babies over viaducts and leave ‘em on doorsteps!

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“People have fallen beneath the standard of the general animals! The animals might have a row once in a while, but they never have deadly killings, and we ain’t gettin’ along as good as our animals! The human beings have hit rock bottom and we gonna have to rise up and quit condemning one another! Lady, this world’s in sad shape.”

Finster, whose work was recently seen in concurrent one-man shows at the Outside-In Gallery in West Hollywood and La Luz de Jesus on Melrose Avenue, took the art world as his pulpit in 1976 when he received a pivotal piece of career advice from on high. While patching a bicycle, he spilled a splotch of white paint on his thumb, perceived a face in the paint and “had a blush feeling telling me to paint sacred art.

“I had my first vision when I was 3. My sister died at 14 and a year after she died I was in our ‘mater patch, down in the high weeds, and my sister came down from heaven on a set of steps. She was about 40 inches over my father’s old mill road, wearing a familiar skirt that she wore at the house, and she just come right down out of the sky to me on a sunshiny day.

“I told my mother about it and she had a fit. She thought something would happen to me telling a story that Abbie’d come to me in the ‘mater patch. She wondered all her life why I had that vision, and I myself never did know until I was 60 and God called me into sacred art.

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“I pastored one church for 15 years, and one night I asked some people what I’d preached about that morning and nobody could remember. I said to myself, ‘They’re not listening to me so why am I spending my time here?’ I resigned from the church, and then at 60, God told me, ‘Howard, they will remember a message you do with enamel on a piece of plywood. That message will go into galleries, colleges, the White House and the Library of Congress. And if people forget the message they can go back and see it again tomorrow.”

Finster responded to his heavenly instructions with a zeal that amazes even him, and his work has, in fact, made its way into all those lofty places. “I must have more spunk than most natural men because I’ve been painting day and night for 10 years, and don’t sleep but for a few minutes now and then. I don’t like sleeping--seems like a waste of time to me.”

Finster’s Herculean effort has yielded 10,000 pieces of art thus far, most of which are sold before the paint has dried. “Everything I touch seems to sell,” he says with bewilderment, speaking by phone from his home in Georgia (a bout of bursitis prevented Finster from attending his L.A. shows). “People come here and buy the paint rags in my studio!”

Described as “the Andy Warhol of the South” by Liza Kirwin, a collector for the Smithsonian’s archives, he has done album covers for rock bands Talking Heads and R.E.M., chatted on the air with Johnny Carson, was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, was included in the Venice Biennale, and has heavyweight dealers in most major American cities. And the Finster boom appears to be just beginning. A retrospective exhibition organized by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York will begin touring the United States in early 1989; at roughly the same time, two massive coffee-table books on Finster (one written by Tom Patterson and Victor Faccinto for Random House, the other by John Turner for Abbeville Press) will hit the stores.

Finster is thrilled to be receiving such high visibility, for the simple and selfless reason that he views his work as a vehicle for the word of God, and all the press attention is publicity for the Good Book. There are those, however, who regard the religious message in his work with amusement, while hungrily eyeing it as a speculator’s score.

A highly emotional article in last November’s issue of Southern magazine titled “The Selling of Howard Finster” made the point--as if it were news--that folk art stars are being marketed with the same kind of publicity campaigns used to sell movie tickets.

When commerce, spirituality and the art world collide, emotions inevitably run high, and the strong response to Finster’s work--and the resulting accusations of exploitation--raise some provocative questions. Do the collectors who buy this heartfelt work find it quaint, or do they empathize with Finster’s religious convictions?

“In all the years I’ve been selling Howard’s work, I can’t think of a single sale that was based on a person sharing Howard’s religious beliefs,” says Phyllis Kind, the New York dealer credited with introducing Finster to the mainstream art audience.

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It’s a point worth considering in light of the fact that usually, when a person purchases a piece of art, it’s partially because he buys into the value system it represents. Is there, then, an air of condescension to the Finster boom? Do people respond to these unabashedly naive pieces as memento mori for their own lost innocence?

And then there’s the most hotly debated question: Are people taking advantage of Finster’s boundless generosity? He sells his work for a song to anyone who shows up at his door, and welcomes everyone who visits him to camp out in his yard. Jaded urbanites are apt to find this eccentric live wire a source of great inspiration. However, what does the slick society he’s been happily oblivious to for 72 years have to offer him ?

One of the central attractions of a man like Finster is that, as can be seen in his art, he contentedly resides in a complex universe of his own creation. Finster’s new-found notoriety has given him access to a world he has little understanding of and even less use for. As is often the case with folk artists, Finster seems to have effortlessly deflected the socialization that shapes most of us into a conforming herd; moreover, his creative drive is not rooted in an artistic ego that craves attention and conquest, but rather, grows out of an impulse to brighten the world and to share. One can’t help wondering what the awards and accolades being showered on Finster mean to him.

“Publicity has really worked me over good,” he says with a moan. “Sometimes I hide out just to be alone with God for a few minutes so I can talk with him. Too much mail, too many phone calls and more people calling me for art than I can possibly satisfy. I sold a $20,000 painting over the phone to a person who hasn’t even seen it. They just buy it!

“Some people glory in publicity and being famous but I’m the same man I ever was ‘cause I don’t believe in that stuff. Women, swimmin’ pools, limousine service--I got no time for that ‘cause that ain’t what I’m here for. You see a house burnin’ with a bunch of kids in it and while you’re on your way to save ‘em somebody says ‘Hey, wait a minute and have a sandwich with me.’ The first thing you know the house is burnt up on account of your social activity.

“The biggest lawyers in Summerville want me to come to their homes and people all around wanting me for supper, but I don’t have activities like that because this world’s on my shoulders and I have to get the message out. I look in little kids faces everyday, smiling and eating fruit out of the garden, and when I see ‘em I say to myself, ‘My God, honey, I’m glad you don’t know what I know.’ ”

While Finster’s burning drive to complete his life’s work makes him guard his time jealously, that’s his only quibble with his new-found star status. He harbors no ill will toward anyone making a profit from his work, nor does he feel that the content of his paintings is in any way debased by the fact that they’ve become a hot commodity. A firm believer in free enterprise, Finster has a bit of the carny in him, and he regards the torrent of money he’s generated with the unbridled glee of someone given permission to print their own money.

“I make a painting and sell it to a man in Key West for $250 and he gets $800 for it,” he says. “It’s wonderful to be able to help people and I wish they could make as much as I’m making. I don’t need money--God give me everything I need--and I don’t object to people making money off my efforts because something has to keep the economy going, and my Bible teaches a good profit. I’ve become a spectacle for the advancement of all kinds of people and I’m a great economy for the publishers. That’s the publisher’s theme--to find a new story, and I’m a new story. The main man at Time magazine just offered me $1,000 to do a cover and I told him, ‘Your magazine is small and I don’t need the publicity, but if it will help you sell a few million copies more, I’ll be glad to do it, ‘cause I’m here to do for others.’ ”

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Time magazine art director Rudy Hoglund confirms Finster’s story: “I liked the album cover Howard did for the Talking Heads so I commissioned him to do a cover for Time’s Sept. 12 issue which dealt with gridlock.”

“Howard has a unique vision of the world and a visual style that seemed to lend itself to solving this particular graphic problem--and he did a beautiful job on the piece he turned in,” Hoglund says. “The image had a very human quality and we all loved it, but covers have to send out a message quickly and it took a bit of looking to appreciate what his piece was saying. Our managing editor decided to go with a cover by Mirko Ilic, but I think Howard’s fantastic and I hope he does some work for us in the future.”

Born in the Sand Mountains of Alabama, Finster quit school in sixth grade and embarked on a series of 22 odd jobs that continued up to his 60th year. When he was 18 he married and fathered two children. Reared in the Baptist church, Finster has worked as a pastor in more than a dozen churches, and his deep religious conviction has always functioned as the unwavering core of his life.

Finster’s God is an angry, avenging one, and echoes of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner are detectable in his paintings which are often disturbingly lurid. Inscribed with the lamentations of an old man exiled in a wicked world he neither recognizes nor understands, his work is perfumed with a child’s preoccupation with bogymen and monsters, and combines apocalyptic warnings, inspirational verse, and the occasional flicker of dry wit. “The sea of life is full of monsters and whore mongers,” he rails in one piece, while a diagram of hell is inscribed with the words, “pain, hate, suffering, no rest rooms.”

As is often the case with folk art, Finster favors a flat pictorial space, skewed perspective and inconsistent scale, and takes an anthropomorphic view of nature. Painting with the flair for abbreviation that the pioneering Modernists found so appealing in primitive and tribal art, Finster creates works that are simultaneously spontaneous and unmediated, yet highly methodical. Often structured as topographical maps or charts, his paintings involve an obsessive logging of information and ideas; he numbers each of his pieces, and his favorite people and things--Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, angels, Coca-Cola and Henry Ford rank high on the list--appear repeatedly. In recent years Finster has accelerated his output in an effort to complete his life’s work before he dies, and these recent “fast” pieces are considered by some to be inferior to his early work.

“I think his work has declined,” says Robert Lopez, curator at the La Luz de Jesus gallery. “Not because he cares less, but because his main concern is to get his message out, so he thinks of art in terms of quantity rather than aesthetic quality.

(The pieces on view at the Outside-In Gallery, two of which will be included in next year’s touring Finster retrospective, are generally conceded to be superior to the more recent work on view at La Luz de Jesus.)

“I think some of Howard’s newer work isn’t as good,” says New York dealer Phyllis Kind, “and I have to admit that there are some pieces he doesn’t spend too much time on. But there are other recent pieces that are as good as anything he’s ever done.”

With quantity foremost in his mind, Finster converts anything and everything into art, and longtime fans recall his “brower root period” (he was painting on shrivelled roots that resemble sprouted potatoes), his “pot metal period” (he melted down metal pots, saw faces in the liquid as it cooled and painted them in), and his glove period (he filled gloves with plaster of paris and painted faces on the tip of each finger). He’s done woodprints, shaped canvases, free-standing “paper doll” figures cut out of wood, and published his own life story (available for $10 from Howard Finster, Box 106-A, Summerville, Ga. 30747). He also plays the banjo and writes songs, which he tapes at home on a small recorder--the tapes are for sale, of course.

However, all of these endeavors pale compared with Finster’s masterpiece-in-progress, the Paradise Garden, which was prominently featured in a documentary film on Finster. Set on 2 1/2 acres behind his house, Paradise Garden is a combination sacred amusement park and junk museum. A central premise behind Paradise Garden is to showcase one example of every invention of man (one of Finster’s names for himself is “the second Noah”), so that’s as good an explanation as any for the 6-foot cement shoe and the jar with a set of tonsils in it that sit alongside an old Cadillac covered with painted portraits of Finster’s friends and heroes.

A massive tower assembled out of discarded TVs, lawn mowers and bicycles looms over rolling concrete hills embedded with trinkets, decaying treasures, and photographs preserved in jars. A walkway encrusted with colored glass and mirror leads to a large chapel resembling a rotting wedding cake where Finster marries and baptizes people. There’s a gate constructed of coffee percolators, a building made of bottles--one could go on ad infinitum.

“When I was a little kid, barely learned to read, I read in the Bible about Jesus being crucified and said to myself why would they do anybody like that,” Finster says, in explaining his inspiration for Paradise Garden. “I said to myself, ‘If I could’ve been there and given him a glass of cold water, it would’ve been one thing I’d love to do above all other things in this world.’ I then learned from the Bible that the only way to do anything for Jesus is to do for others, so I started building a garden to serve all the people. I started putting sculpture in the garden and painting messages, and people come around grunting ‘That’s gonna ruin it. There’s Bibles in every house,’ they said, ‘So why you want to scatter Bible verses over the garden?’ But I followed the power from on high and my message has gone all over the world like a stream out of a mountain. When I’m on the Johnny Carson show, the TV becomes my missionary, when the Wall Street Journal writes about me, that paper becomes my missionary.”

Finster’s most successful missionary thus far has been the rock group Talking Heads, who used one of Finster’s paintings on the cover of their 1985 LP, “Little Creatures.”

“Talking Heads offered me $3,000 to make a picture for ‘em and I put 26 wholesome verses that the world needs to hear in that cover. And that rock ‘n’ roll bunch took my 26 verses and in 2 1/2 months they’d covered the world with ‘em. They reached more people for me than 40 years of pastoring churches!”

Due in large part to the endorsement by the taste-making Heads, Finster’s become something of a hero among rock’s cognoscenti, and yuppie hipsters comprise a large part of his audience. (Folk art is tailor made for yuppies, who crave the status afforded by art, but don’t yet have the bankroll for blue-chip purchases.) Before his Talking Heads promo, Finster did an LP cover for Georgia-based band R.E.M., which led to a friendship between Finster and group vocalist Michael Stipe, who lives near Finster, in Athens, Ga.

“Howard’s so giving and accepting of everybody,” says Stipe. “He’s a real inspiration to me because he’s got this calling which he can’t help but follow despite the fact that a lot of people don’t understand it. After he was on the Johnny Carson show his neighbors began to treat him with some respect, but when he first started painting and building things in his garden they didn’t know what to make of him.”

Rock ‘n’ roll is undeniably helping to grease the wheels of Finster’s career, but he has decidedly mixed feelings about the music.

“A lot of them rock ‘n’ roll musicians sing some mighty lousy songs that ain’t good for our children,” he says. “God gives ‘em a million dollars and they don’t sing one religious song? My God, that’s a big mistake! Elvis didn’t make that mistake. He sung songs teen-agers liked, but he also sung religious songs. Elvis was a wonderful young man, but he was overloaded with this world. He got so much out of this world he had to go somewhere else ‘cause he’d used up everything in this world!”

Finster keeps abreast of Elvis and other current events via prodigious television watching. Asked to describe a typical day, he explains that “day and night are the same to me. After I finish this interview I’ll go paint some sacred art. My studio’s about 50 feet from my house and I got a little bed in there, and I’ll lay down and sleep a little while, then I’ll work some more. Busloads of people come here to see me and that takes up a lot of my time--there’s people sittin’ around my yard right now waiting for me to come out and talk to ‘em. I don’t drink alcohol, although a cup of wine at night can help you go off to bed and sleep good. Coca-Cola is a wonderful flavor and I’ve drunk it all my life. It’ll always settle your stomach, and millions of people drink Coca-Cola and drive home safely.”

Certainly the soft drink is well within reach of the common man, and Finster’s recently acquired fortune seems to have had no affect whatsoever on his daily routine. In fact, he pumps every penny he makes back into Paradise Garden.

“People come here all the time and ask me what I’m doin’ with my money--as if it were any of their business,” he snaps. “I tell ‘em, well, you just walked over my life’s saving.”

As Finster’s notoriety spreads, he seems to grow increasingly agitated in his frenzy to complete his work prior to his death.

“Old age comes on everybody,” he says somberly, “and if you could avoid old age there wouldn’t be standing room on this Earth. In the cycle of life the old people have to move out and give the young people a place, like bees. I’m no longer a young man, but I was sent by God to do a job, and like a man on a contract job, I want to see the last piece put on.

“I been working hard to get people stirred up and to wake ‘em up to the fact that they need God, and that they need things besides what they see around ‘em on this planet. ‘Cause, lady, this world ain’t nothin’ but a gateway to God.”


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