Clashing visions of ‘Paradise’

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Howard Finster -- one of the 20th century’s most renowned folk artists -- always maintained that he was a stranger from another world, and that he would return to that world when he died.

He has left behind quite a mess.

The trouble is not with Finster’s famously peculiar paintings, with their smiling clouds, tiny UFOs, serene Elvises and towering Coca-Cola bottles, most covered in a hand-lettered gush of Bible verses and folksy aphorisms. Many of the works have been snatched up by the great museums and collectors of planet Earth.

The trouble lies in this tiny unincorporated hamlet near the Alabama line, in a 3 1/2 -acre swamp he began draining in 1961. It was here that Finster, an evangelical preacher who died in 2001, created his masterpiece: “Paradise Gardens,” a sprawling fantasia of murals, plants, sculptures, curios and prayer spaces meant to mimic God’s work in the Book of Genesis.


“It just come to me that the world started with a beautiful garden,” Finster told writer Tom Patterson in the 1980s, “so why not let it end with a beautiful garden?”

Today, the world lumbers on. But Finster’s gardens, once a magnet for artists such as Keith Haring and pop icons including R.E.M., are an overgrown tangle surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire.

Before his death, Finster’s family sold many of the gardens’ major works. But countless gems and oddities remain among the weeds, including Finster’s “World’s Folk Art Church,” with a tower of tiered cylinders that he once boasted of building with “no blueprints nor tape measures nor nothin’.” Today, it is rotting from a leaky roof. The tower tilts like the one in Pisa.

Behind the stalled efforts to revive this fallen paradise is a drama that echoes one of Finster’s favorite Bible passages -- the one about a house divided. The family struggled for years to maintain the gardens, and today an evangelical Baptist minister and a Chicago art dealer are competing stewards of Finster’s legacy.

They are characters from the two very different worlds that Finster so gracefully, if implausibly, inhabited while he was alive: Few tent-revival evangelists ever moved so easily in the rarefied galleries of Manhattan. But with Finster gone, and the future of the gardens uncertain, some family members have been taking sides.

Two years ago Finster’s youngest daughter, Beverly Finster, sold the gardens to a nonprofit organization headed by fundamentalist minister Tommy Littleton of Alabama. Littleton, 46, says he is intent on following the family’s wishes that the gardens “remain Christ-centered, that the Gospel remain in it, that no one seek to come in and neutralize the message of it.”


But so far, Littleton has been able to raise only a fraction of the $350,000 he says he needs for a basic restoration. That has raised the ire of art dealer David Leonardis, the other man who would save the gardens.

As nature reclaims the site, Leonardis is pressing ahead with his own project. In 2004, he purchased the house that Finster lived in when he began building the gardens and painting sacred art. It is next door to the gardens, and last month Leonardis opened it to the public, billing it as the Howard Finster Vision House. Inside is a small room with limited-edition Finster prints for sale, and a larger one with more prints and a few Finster originals.

Leonardis, 40, is a garrulous, passionate man who is keenly aware of his outsider status in northwest Georgia: He tends to sarcastically refer to himself as “that Yankee.” He began selling Finster lithographs in 1990, and considered himself a close friend.

He, too, had hoped to buy the gardens, but he says Beverly Finster turned him down. Finster did not respond to requests for an interview, but last month she told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that she did not want to sell the gardens to Leonardis because, in the newspaper’s words, “she believed that he would not fulfill her father’s religious intentions for the property.”

Leonardis, who owns a gallery in Chicago’s hip Wicker Park neighborhood, takes offense at his implied lack of spirituality. As an Italian American from Boston, he said, “you get born Catholic.” But he acknowledged a certain division of labor in his relationship with the artist.

“Howard’s job is to save your soul,” he said. “My job is to sell you valuable contemporary folk art.”

On a recent afternoon, Leonardis walked around the perimeter of the fenced-off gardens. He poked his nose through the wire and seethed with anger over the neglect.

Stories of Finster’s death ran in major newspapers in Los Angeles, New York and London. Writers noted that the 84-year-old with the grade-school education had shown his works at the Venice Biennale and had won Rolling Stone’s award for best album cover of 1985, for his design of the Talking Heads’ “Little Creatures.” A collector for the Smithsonian called him “the Andy Warhol of the South.”

Littleton, who met Finster at an art show in the early 1990s, said the artist welcomed the fame and fortune. But he saw his work first and foremost as a vehicle for saving souls.

“What Howard knew was that the word of God is very powerful,” Littleton said. “Howard was very unorthodox in his methods, but he was very orthodox in his message.”

Finster, a native of Valley Head, Ala., was a mechanical-minded man who repaired bicycles when he wasn’t preaching. He said he was privy to visions that directed his work. It was a vision of a face on his paint-splattered finger in 1976 that commanded him to paint sacred art. He eventually produced more than 40,000 meticulously numbered works.

He said his gardens were inspired by an earlier vision of a 15-foot-tall man who visited him one evening and told him to “get on the altar.” Finster interpreted that as a command to dedicate his creative powers to God.

He intended to use the gardens to show how mankind’s creativity mirrored the creativity of the divine. So, in addition to muscadine grapes, pears and blackberries, Finster filled the gardens with “ever’ kinda invention” -- a plastic yo-yo, a jar of tonsils in formaldehyde, plows, wheels and adding machines.

To these, he added his art: snaking concrete pathways lined with riotous mosaics of broken, colored glass; paintings of smiling angels and American presidents; hanging gourds painted with human faces. He covered his white Cadillac with portraits of friends and family, and a depiction of his first-ever plane ride, on a Delta jet.

As his fame grew in the 1980s, Finster’s gardens, about 90 minutes northwest of Atlanta, became a pilgrimage for hipsters, collectors and curators. Finster would usually be there in his workshop, painting and talking and preaching to all comers.

“There’d be rock bands showing up at 3 in the morning, and he’d be up anyway, with the TV blaring, painting,” recalled Patterson, author of “Howard Finster, Stranger from Another World.”

By the early 1990s, Finster had made enough money from art to move into a big white house, the kind his wife had always wanted, in nearby Summerville. He turned the gardens over to his children.

When Beverly Finster sold the gardens (Littleton said she had earlier bought out her four siblings’ shares), they were in need of serious attention. Littleton and the nonprofit board have drawn up a plan to restore them to their ‘80s heyday, with hopes of adding bus parking and piped-in recorded conversations with the artist.

“I just want to give this place a chance,” Littleton said.

Littleton is a calm, soft-spoken man with long, wavy hair. He looks more like an artist than a Southern minister, and in fact he dabbles in sculpture. But he has had to learn the business of fine-art fundraising on the fly, and so far, it has not gone well. He said he has been turned away by art foundations, big corporations, rock stars and museums.

His conversations with one potential benefactor, the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation -- a nonprofit that has restored a number of folk-art environments -- so far have gone nowhere. The organization sent an expert who estimated it would take well over $1 million to fix the gardens, Kohler Foundation executive director Terri Yoho said.

Littleton wonders whether investors are wary about the gardens’ Christian message. Moreover, he said, because many of the gardens’ major pieces are in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, “we’re up against the perception that there’s nothing left.”

But Littleton says that there is much to be saved among the overgrown ligustrum and mimosa. He showed off the gardens on a recent morning, walking the bright mosaic pathways with a pair of pruning shears.There are small, curious buildings in various states of disrepair: a house on stilts, covered in mirrors; a small pump house with walls made of Coke bottles encased in concrete. Mountainous concrete sculptures brim with human faces, leering and smiling. One is covered with slithering snakes adorned with button eyes: “SEPPENTS OF THE WILDERNESS,” a broken sign reads.

An exterior wall of one building is inlaid with Finster family photos, a Father’s Day card and a magazine cutout of Richard Nixon. A rusting refrigerator is covered with a painting of a frowning Elvis during his Army days. A water heater behind bushes is painted with three fully realized busts of George Washington. The Cadillac sits under an awning, its paintings dusty but intact.

Everywhere there are painted messages in Finster’s trademark uppercase. “65 YEARS I TRIED GOD,” one begins. “AND COME TO KNOW GOD BETTER THAN I KNOWED MY FATHER AND MOTHER OR ANY OF MY FAMILY. . .”

It took a long time for the locals to appreciate Finster; today, there is little money in northwest Georgia to support their famous artist. Littleton has been trying to think creatively. He has called home-improvement TV shows. He’s called Hollywood: Maybe Johnny Depp could play Howard. Maybe set designers could save the gardens.

A few days earlier, Leonardis stood outside the gardens’ fence in back of his Vision House, a modest wooden cottage with white paint and a rusted metal roof. It had been out of the Finster family’s possession for a number of years when Leonardis bought it at a tax sale for $1,479.28.

Workers were gutting the back of the house, where Leonardis plans a space for visiting artists. He hopes to hold weddings there. Maybe open a coffee shop.

Leonardis said his life was changed by Finster. In 1989, when he was working as a waiter in Chicago, he saw Finster’s work in a gallery. He couldn’t afford to buy a piece, so he got a part-time job at the gallery in order to get a discount.

He soon struck a deal with Finster to reproduce his images on T-shirts and to make limited-edition prints. Eventually he opened his own gallery. Four times a year, he would drive to Pennville to visit with Finster and get him to sign the prints.

“Howard told me that if anybody’s soul ever gets saved because of one of my prints, I’ll get an extra credit point in heaven,” he said.

Leonardis said that Beverly Finster offered to sell him the gardens in 2003. He had lined up $200,000 by December 2004, he said, when he discovered she had agreed to sell it to Littleton and his nonprofit, called Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens Park and Museum. Leonardis felt that the two Southerners had decided to “stab a Yankee in the back at the last minute.”

Leonardis believes he is the one who can bring the gardens back because of his connections in the art world. “Tommy and every member of that board need to step down and appoint me president,” he said.

The gardens today, he added, are “a joke. But the joke’s on Howard.”

One of the artist’s grandsons, Tommy Wilson, was recently at the Vision House with Leonardis. His wife and son have been hired to work there.

“To me, what David is doing around here is awesome,” said Wilson, 40, who works in a nearby textile mill. “The garden, I’ve got to say, it’s falling apart, and it’s sad.”

At family gatherings, he said, his grandfather’s grand creation is a topic everyone tries to avoid.