They just don’t make ’em like the Reverend anymore. The Elvis-loving, banjo plucking, gecko-wearing Howard Finster was one of the 21st century’s most inimitable, yet misunderstood Outsider Artists— a mere novelty for art critics, who wrote him off as a mad preacher with a paintbrush, and a man to be avoided by prying neighbours in small-town Georgia. Today, his works go for thousands of dollars, acquired for the collections of America’s most important art museums. Step inside the world of a visionary superstar…
“My dad would say, ‘There’s that crazy Finster place,’” former neighbour Jordan Poole told the Smithsonian in 2015, “That was the common attitude. He was that crazy Baptist preacher who did what you shouldn’t do.” What he was doing, ever so quietly, was beckoning the old south into his near psychedelic vision. Sit with this legendary character and his banjo for a moment…
Outsider Artists usually prefer to stay off the radar in isolation– just look at the case of reclusive janitor Henry Darger, or the mountain dwelling Clarence Schmidt. Finster, however, broke from the mould with his studio and compound at “Paradise Gardens.” Finster died in 2001, but you can still visit the site, which is trying to spruce itself up after a period of neglect. Even with all its rust, it’s quite an impressive compound:
You can see a statue personally gifted from Keith Haring in the distance here (but more on that in a moment):
Tucked away in Summerville, Georgia, the veritable temple was bustling with creatives in its 1970s-80s heyday and still houses over 46,000 of Finster’s own works. “He especially like to meet his fellow outsider artists”, reported the Smithsonian, “and such famous names as Purvis Young, Keith Haring and R.A. Miller” made the pilgrimage to see the Reverend.
His medium of choice? Anything he could get his hands on: broken teapots, pipes, plywood, bottles, you name it. One of Finster’s favourite subjects was the King of Rock’n’Roll himself, Elvis Presley, whose humble nature and patriotism appealed Howard. He often portrayed Elvis as a baby-faced angel with wings, suggesting The King was a special Christian emissary on earth. He named these portraits, “Baby Elvis”.
Other muses included Eisenhower, aliens, Leonardo DaVinci, and various biblical figures he claimed to have seen in his visions.
Finster grew up poor as one of 13 kids in Valley Head, Alabama. His first vision was at age two, when he claimed to have seen his dead sister Abbie Rose descend from the sky in white gown to say, “Howard, you’re gonna be a man of visions.”
By sixteen, he was preaching, but he didn’t get into art until the age of 60, when he dipped his finger into a can of white paint and had another vision of a human face on his fingerprint, encouraging him to paint. In 1984, Howard Finster was selected to represent the United States of America in that year’s Venice Biennale.
“I took a dollar bill out of my wallet…And I started drawing George Washington,” Finster remembers of his first encounter with art. The many Washington portraits he left behind are one of his greatest legacies, a true window into his universe with their endless, minuscule figures and smiling faces:
Finster’s visions became the blueprint for his artistic world, and Paradise Gardens its mecca. It was almost as if the site had a mind of its own, unfurling elements like the Mirror House, the Mosaic Garden, and five-story chapel at an inexhaustible rate. He even designed a “Rolling Chair Ramp Gallery” tailored for wheelchair-bound visitors:
By the 1980s, he was catching the eye of bands like Talking Heads and R.E.M., the latter of which featured him in his paradise for their music video, “Radio Free Europe”:
It took time, and Finster’s passing, for the artist’s work to be appreciated as the game-changing oeuvre it really was for the outsider art genre.
When the Talking Heads commissioned Finster to paint their 1985 album cover, it was selected as album cover of the year by Rolling Stone magazine. The collaboration introduced millions of young music fans to outsider art. Always true to his faith however, he said of the Talking Heads album, “I think there’s twenty-six religious verses on that first cover I done for them. They sold a million records in the first two and a half months after it come out, so that’s twenty-six million verses I got out into the world in two and a half months!”
Visit Howard Finster’s website here.