I first heard about Howard Finster from my one-time dorm-mate Bill Berry, who described Finster's Paradise Garden where his band had filmed their first 'MTV' style video for Radio Free Europe. For some unknown reason Bill decided to wear white boots for that shoot. I need to ask him about that if I ever get the chance.
Around the same time (or a little after), I hooked up with Doctor Flowers. We were neighbors, kindred souls, believers in reggae music and the sheer wonder of driving down an unknown country road for one of the many possibilities there. I got directions to The Paradise Garden from Jefferson Holt ("Jefferson I think we're lost"). "Take Ga 27 north out of Rome and drive up past Summerville to the Pennville community and look for Old Man Kinsey's TV repair shop and take a right. Go down the street and you can't miss it."
We took Doc's new red truck The Beagle up, made a day of it. We followed the directions and found ourselves parked and walking right into the middle of the old buzzard's studio, in a rattletrap crackerbox house on one corner of the garden. The Man of Visions himself ensconced inside, painting one of his Coke Bottles, wooden cutouts in the shape of a coca cola bottle that was his big thing right then. Howard loved coca cola. It gave him strength and the focus to paint his visions through the night, numbering each one. He was happy to have two new strangers walk in for him to witness to about getting right with the Lord.
"Go on out and walk around the garden if you want to. Make all the pictures you want." Flowers was still in the earliest days of his photography and fortunately he took dozens of shots of Howard Finster's Paradise Garden and World Folk Art Church incorporated. The garden took up an entire block of this North Georgia Community. Sidewalk slabs filled with marbles, old metal files. A hundred rusting bicycle hulks welded and sculpted together, everywhere you looked Howard's laborious scrawl warning one and all of the coming rapture. The largest collection of "stuff" I have probably ever seen to this day. An ancient Cadillac permanently parked, scrawls and faces and angels and warnings against drunk driving away from God. And everywhere you look, Howard's angels ascending skyward just like that Talking Heads album cover. My mind reels to this day when I remember the first time we walked through the place. I later found out that Flowers had the same reaction.
We went back probably once a year or so from '85 until the early 90's. I would've gone more often if I had realized that Howard Finster's Garden would be dismantled piece by piece, that the old man's fame would grow and his health would fail and he'd move to a big house in Summerville and leave his garden for his cousins and nephews and the college art school drop out arrivistes. They sold a bunch of the pieces off to the High Museum, and you can go there today and see them, but it's not the same. The last time I drove past, there was a chain-link fence around the place with an entrance listing hours of operation and admission charges. Howard was nowhere to be found, lying instead in a grave outside of the Silver Creek Church some 10 miles away. I'm glad Doctor Flowers documented that place and I hope to see some of those shots as this site unfurls.
Howard was as much of an original as I could ever hope to meet. He was a roving Pentacostal preacher who had never painted anything other than a fence or a tractor when in mid-life the face of God appeared to him in a dollop of tractor enamel on his finger and ordered him to paint His Words and save souls through the art of his visions. God could have just as easily commanded him to take up poisonous serpents. But God was in a whimsical mood that day and we are richer for it.
Title: © Howard Finster . r0171-14
Series: Howard Finster
Location: Pennville, Georgia
Date: Saturday 9 May 1987