Howard Finster: Behind the Brain of a Genius: Finster’s Cut-Outs, Dimensions and Molds from the Paradise Garden Archive, Summerville, GA

For the first year of this site, I was set on not writing about an artist more than once. I had everything mapped out, this ever-changing list of works, sites, and artists that would last me through the 52 weeks. In week seven, I wrote about Howard Finster’s infamous appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1983, where he brought the house down with a show-stealing, stage-staking rendition of “Just a Little Tack in the Shingle of Your Roof.” I hadn’t intended to break my own rules here, but I’m afraid that’s what is about to happen. It only makes sense that this happens for Howard, as much of my first few years in Georgia involved road trips up to Paradise Garden. Any visiting artist was swooped up, and before they toured Atlanta before they even knew what was happening, we were heading north, turning onto a narrow street in the unincorporated town of Pennville, Georgia. 

Just recently been back up to Paradise twice, specifically to see consecutive temporary exhibitions that have both been excellent. This is a bit of a departure for Paradise as they have, rightfully, focused on Finster’s magnum opus, Paradise Garden, a 2.5-acre art environment labyrinth of stone, metal, and ceramic pieces, each telling a story of divine inspiration and relentless human endeavor. Over his first sixty years, Finster held a variety of positions, including a farmer, factory worker, and bicycle repairman, but first and foremost, he was always an evangelical preacher. Two years after he left school after completing the sixth grade, he began a thirty-year itinerant preaching career that took him across Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, delivering sermons at tent revivals and officiating baptisms, weddings, and funerals. To extend his reach further, he self-financed the publication of his sermons in local newspapers. He bought what would become Paradise in 1961 while serving as minister of the Baptist Church in the nearby farming community of Menlo. He immediately sought to transform the property into this sprawling canvas of assorted improvised structures, bicycle towers, sculptured faces and figures, Venetian water features, biblical proclamations, a giant show, as well the “Tomb of the Unknown Body.” The sheer transformation of the property into this artistic wonderland is a testament to Finster’s vision and creativity. 

Finster’s artistic journey was not one of mere chance. At the age of 60, during a seemingly mundane activity of painting a bicycle, he experienced a vision that would redefine his life’s purpose. A face with eyes and mouth appeared in the paint on his finger, compelling him to embark on a mission of creating sacred art. Despite initial reluctance, questioning his ability compared to professional artists, the repeated divine message, “How do ya know? How do ya know?” ignited a spark within him. From that moment, Howard Finster took it upon himself to produce as much sacred art as possible, far surpassing the original divine mandate of 5,000 pieces.

By Finster’s own count, he created a total of 46,991 individually numbered artworks (and that is not counting his thousands of early, unnumbered works, prints, posters, and album covers for the Talking Heads and R.E.M.). The sheer volume of Finster’s work often prompts the question: How did he manage to create so much? The answer lies in his inexhaustible drive and systematic approach to art production. Finster’s Paradise Garden was not just a space for displaying his art; it was a workshop where the divine met the tangible. In the late 1980s, he shifted towards a more production-oriented approach to satisfy increasing demand by utilizing cut-outs, molds, and templates to reproduce shapes and forms, enabling him to focus on the sacred messages he wished to convey. This methodological approach allowed for the production of numerous versions of the same image, from angels and historical figures to fantastical creatures, all imbued with spiritual significance.

The exhibition up now at Paradise that is so cool gives a glimpse into his production, repetition and prodigious output. “Behind the Brain of a Genius: Finster’s Cut-Outs, Dimensions and Molds from the Paradise Garden Archive” came to life when the staff began cleaning out Pauline’s House (a structure Finster built for his wife that she never used) and reengaged with pre-shaped wooden outlines, that he used as guides or pattern in the creation of artworks. It is an exhibition on one long wall, with wooden templates that Finster called “dimensions,” of angels, devils, Coke bottles, a house divided, depictions of George Washington, as well as cats, elephants, kangaroos, giraffes, rabbits, and dinosaurs. There are also prefabricated plastic molds of the Virgin Mary with her baby Jesus, fruits, and butterflies, which make up the concrete wall along at the front of the garden. On a pedestal beside the exhibition sits a book that shows each of the cutouts and molds corresponding finished piece, the wood now covered in tractor enamel paint and covered the very edges in spiritual narratives and biblical prophesies.

By adorning the paintings with so much text, Finster implies that the picture plane extends indefinitely, suggesting that there are continually more images, more messages beyond the edges of the outline. With the perpetual reproduction we always perceive that there is more salvation existing both in and outside of anyone painting. I was stuck standing thinking about that Warhol quote: “The reason I’m painting this way is I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.” This idea of multiplicity, using the silkscreen to produce multiple versions of the same image, often with variations in color, scale, and composition. To explore themes of mass production and repetition, core ideas for artists like Warhol, even someone like de Chirico in his later years, for the burgeoning consumer culture of their times.

As we reflect on Finster’s contribution to the world of art, it is clear that his work transcends mere artistic expression. It is a vibrant testament to the power of faith, the beauty of imagination, and the indomitable spirit of a man who saw his art as a means to connect with the divine and share that connection with the world. These cutouts stand as symbols of hope and creativity, as symbols of divine guidance and unwavering dedication.