Paradise Garden

A followup to my post about Pasaquan: Paradise Garden, located between Summerville and Trion in Chattooga County, Georgia, is another visionary art compound, constructed by Howard Finster (1916-2001). Finster was a Baptist preacher and ran a bicycle repair business; in 1976 he saw a human face in a smear of white paint on his finger and heard a voice commanding him to “paint sacred art.” This he did enthusiastically until his death, producing some 47,000 pieces, many of which adorned the buildings he had built on his four-acre plot of land, soon dubbed Paradise Garden. He developed a distinctive colorful, flat style for his images, which were often accompanied by extensive text, often Biblical. Here is a representative example from Wikipedia:

Howard Finster, Portrait of Don Schwatzentruber (c. 2001). Wikipedia.

Other examples can be found on Wikiart, the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Howard Finster’s official website. The High Museum in Atlanta also has a good collection of his work

My understanding is that when Finster died in 2001 his heirs sold off a lot of the moveable art at Paradise Garden, and Wikipedia claims that the site “began to decay in the heat and humidity of rural Georgia.” When I first saw it in 2006 (with the help of my friend Brad Adams, an art professor at Berry College), it was clear that the place wasn’t quite as glorious as it once was – but it was still pretty interesting! Here are some photos from that visit, so many years ago now:

Since then the site has been acquired by Chattooga County, and is now maintained by the Paradise Garden Foundation. One can visit it easily enough. 

It’s clear that Finster was a committed Christian and saw his art as essential to his ministry. The vast majority of it is religious in theme. Yet his notoriety was not the result of any sort of religious revival in late-twentieth-century America. Instead, Finster became famous as a self-taught “outsider” artist, a Southern eccentric true to his own vision. Michael Stipe of the rock band REM did not get Finster to design the cover of Reckoning, nor have the video to “Radio Free Europe” filmed at Paradise Garden, because he was in sympathy with Finster’s religious message. And it seems that Finster was well aware of this, and enjoyed the celebrity: witness his exuberant appearance on The Tonight Show in 1983. Tom Wolfe talked about this act in The Painted Word (1975) – successful artists may like to cultivate an image of otherworldliness, but they always have an eye to producing what sells, or what will impress the critics. Yet Finster never completely sold out. For instance, of the Talking Heads’ album Little Creatures (1985), he stated:

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!

Well done, thou good and faithful servant!

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