last time we spoke was in the spring. It was on his porch at a table where
he liked to chat, receive folks from almost everywhere and sign paintings
and objects he was, almost to the end, still creating. Without my asking
about his health, he volunteered that he wasnt
on being around this here place much longer.
His death comes as no surprise. Rev. Howard Finster, whether in good or
bad health, talked, preached and painted about going home,
and if there is a grim reaper, he was sorely disappointed if he expected
any struggle for a few extra moments of life from this remarkable man.
Death to him was a mere walk up the stairs; the completion of his journey.
Its in dozens of his paintings.
Howard Finster was
one of the most effective messengers of Christianity Ive ever encountered.
Like Christ, Rev. Finster walked comfortably among the ordinary and the
poor. The prisoner, the sinner and the privileged were all the same to
him. He became a celebrity almost by accident. Decades ago a few good souls
discovered his tribute to God, Paradise Garden, just outside his Summerville,
Georgia home, and began telling the world about his paintings. Like most
southerners of his time and location, he had little education. But, he
was astonishingly intelligent and learned early on that he could paint
and carve, and with this self-developed talent, he could impart his visions
of Heaven and things beyond this world in ways we could enjoy and marvel
for generations beyond his life.
The works of Rev.
Howard Finster made their way into The Smithsonian, Atlantas High
Museum of Art, the truly great galleries in New York, Chicago and even
London. He was prolific. Because he numbered and signed every work, his
most recent production numbers were approaching 50,000. His biography is
in every credible publication about American folk art, and more than one
authoritative treatise states that Howard Finster was the most exhibited
living artist in the world.
The artist sees beauty
beyond the obvious. Howard Finster had an eye trained to see beneath the
surface; that allowed him to take scrap
wood, soft drink bottles and things we throw away and turn them into something
delightful for a special table at home or a shelf in a childs room.
I dont believe he viewed the world and all thats in it as ever
less than radiant. Howard Finster had heroes who were non-religious. Patsy
Cline, Hank Williams and particularly Elvis were dear to him. He painted
them and adorned their likeness with Biblical scripture. A few years ago,
he delivered a Sermon on Elvis at the University of Mississippi,
and managed to make the pages of newspapers throughout the country. Howard
Finster said he had visions about Elvis and many others. Knowing his supernatural
powers and his closeness to God, I never once doubted him. I even bought
one of his Elvis paintings, which depicted the King of Rock and Roll as
a farm child wearing coveralls. This young Elvis also had angel wings.
Its in my bedroom and brings me peace.
It must be said as
part of our remembrance that Howard Finster was a wonderful asset for Georgia.
His artistry and fame brought thousands of visitors and maybe a few pilgrims
to his home and to museums, galleries and festivals where he appeared.
He had many friends in high places including President Carter and a large
number of rock stars. But, he never once thought of himself as anything
other than Gods messenger whose mission was to share his profound
gifts and talents.
The death of Howard
Finster deprives us of a link to the South that is deeply rooted in things
mysterious and spiritual. No matter how much he was exposed to this modern
world, he remained the same, in accent and actions. He was proud to be
a preacher, a husband and a parent, and his creations told stories from
his great and noble soul that cannot be put into words. All that he was
will forever remain etched into his magnificent art.
I will miss Howard
Finster. When he spoke of God with me or others, there was credibility
in his soft voice. He once told me something that stuck: Always remember
that God loves you as you are right now. Although I was a stranger
at the time, he knew I needed to hear and believe those kind words.
A writer friend called
me when she learned of his death and asked me to describe Howard Finster.
Thats easy. Rev. Howard Finster was an American Shaman.