Howard Finster American, 1916-2001


Howard Finster was born in Valley Head, Alabama, one of thirteen children in the Finster family. He attended school through only the sixth grade, delivered his first sermon at age sixteen, and was eventually ordained at the Violet Hill Baptist Church and went on to lead many other small rural churches over the next forty years. In 1935 he and Pauline Freeman married, and they had four daughters and one son. To support his family, he worked at all kinds of side jobs, including carpentry, plumbing, bricklaying, and mechanical repairs—which Finster, famously charismatic, seemed to have taken in stride. The reverend’s first creative expression was in the form of outdoor environments: first a garden museum in Trion, Georgia, which he began as early as 1945, and then what came to be known as the Paradise Garden, constructed on a two-acre plot of land that Finster acquired in the early 1960s in Pennville, Georgia. Paradise Garden was an immersive setting planted with an ornate flora of man-made artifacts and trinkets. When he decided to retire from preaching in 1965—having found that his spoken faith had lost impact in his congregation—Finster focused entirely on Paradise Garden. Then, one day in 1976, a vision that he repeatedly recalled came to him and gave a higher purpose to his work. As recounted in a 1984 interview with Liza Kirwin, Finster described how when he dipped his finger in white paint, he saw a human face on the ball of his finger, and “while I was lookin’ at it a warm flash kind’a went all over me, all the way down, and it said, ‘Paint sacred art.’ And I said to it, I said, ‘I cain’t do that. I know professionals can, but not me.’ And it comes to me again and it says, ‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘How do I know that I cain’t paint.’ I tuck a dollar out of my wallet, and I pasted it on a piece of plyboard and went out in front of my shop, and I started drawing George Washington off that dollar bill.”

From that moment on, Finster, a self--proclaimed “man of visions,” worked tirelessly, joyfully, and with unyielding faith in his mission, producing more than 46,991 works of artin his remaining years. He created mixed-media sculptural objects and painted with enamel in a precise, graphic manner on all kinds of surfaces and objects, among them wooden boards cut geometrically or irregularly, filing cabinets, metal barrels, saw blades, shoes, and even telephones.

Finster’s message was meant to be simple and forceful: God is love, humankind must follow His teachings, salvation comes to those who do . . . Finster’s works are endless variations on these ideas, a compulsiveness that echoes the ritual reiteration of church sermons. Most of Finster’s work is richly scripted with writings in which he relays the lessons of the Bible along with his thoughts and musings. Life and death, good and bad, heaven and hell were the strict dichotomies that concerned him. In this sense, Finster’s iconography is always allegorical and didactic, yet it’s also playful, owing as much to popular culture as it does to biblical references and emerging as a complex system of images and words interwoven with sacred and secular allusions. Finster created imaginary apocalyptic landscapes in which he tried to illustrate the currents of mankind moving between salvation and damnation; he portrayed the church as the center of the universe, but his lens was wide enough to include UFOs. He also created cutout wooden silhouettes of various icons, characters, and historical figures: Coca-Cola bottles, cats, and many variations of Uncle Sam, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, self-portraits, angels, Jesus, and several presidents of the United States served for his intricate microcosms. George Washington at 23 #5,084 (p. 102), for example, encompasses a visual and verbal landscape that describes the past and present of the American way of life. Finster was drawn to founders, leaders, and trailblazers because he counted himself among them.

Unlike most self-taught and outsider artists, Finster’s art was widely celebrated during his lifetime. He had his first important solo show in 1979 at Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago, after which his work was shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the New Museum, the Venice Biennale, and the U.S. Library of Congress. He appeared twice on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, painted album covers for the Talking Heads and R.E.M., and was commissioned to paint an eight-foot Coca-Cola bottle for the 1996 Olympic Games. Finster’s work is in museums and collections worldwide, including the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York), the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.), the High Museum of Art (Atlanta), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum (New York), the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (Williamsburg, Virginia), and the abcd Collection (Paris).