Paradise Garden

Howard FinsterThe 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 wasn’t “…planning 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. It’s in dozens of his paintings.

Howard Finster was one of the most effective messengers of Christianity I’ve 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, Atlanta’s 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 Winged Elvisscrap 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 child’s room. I don’t believe he viewed the world and all that’s 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. It’s 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 God’s 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. That’s easy. Rev. Howard Finster was an American Shaman.

This message from Reverend Howard Finster's official home page,

"He is with a Band Of Angels, his arms are open wide and he has the most beautiful smile on his face. He is more alive now than he ever has been. He is coming back with those angels to get us. So be ready to go. He will always be alive here and in our hearts. Remember one thing about him, 'He never met a person that he didn't Love.'"

The Lord's Supper

Planets of Another Life

Beast with Human Emages

Stairway to Heaven


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