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Howard on a Mule by Howard Finster
Happy Birthday, Howard!
 
Katie Jentelson
Katherine Jentleson
Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art

For minister and artist Howard Finster (American, 1916–2001), more was more. After a vision from God in 1976 commanded him to create sacred art, Finster generated more than 46,000 paintings that now reside in collections all over the world and continued his work on a multi-acre art environment, calling it Paradise Garden. Located about an hour and a half north of Atlanta, the Garden is still open to the public and remains an awe-inspiring place filled with mosaic walls, sidewalks and towers, as well as unique buildings like the Worlds Folk Art Church.

On December 2, 2016, the High Museum of Art celebrated the centenary of Finster’s birth with a party that included the debut screening of Happy Birthday, Howard! a short film that captures Georgians sharing their memories of the legendary artist.

 

 

In the early 1980s, Finster’s audience—or “congregation,” as he called them—swelled as he made his first appearance on the Johnny Carson show and received a major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Although Paradise Garden was a peculiar fit for the Appalachian community where it is located, this magical place blossomed as a site of pilgrimage for artists, including the alternative rock band REM, who filmed the music video for “Radio Free Europe” there.

 

Built on a parcel of swampy land, the Garden requires constant preservation efforts, which have been especially effective in the past decade. In the mid-1990s, when the Garden’s longterm fate was uncertain, the High worked with Finster to preserve iconic pieces of the site, including a slab of sidewalk in which Finster declares his transition to the “artist world” and his showstopping Gospel Bike.

construction
Gospel Bike

Howard Finster
(American, 1916–2001)
Gospel Bike, #1,776, ca. 1980
Enamel paint on metal and rubber

Sidewalk Slab
construction

Howard Finster
(American, 1916–2001)
Howard’s Tools Section of Sidewalk from Paradise Garden, ca. 1981
Concrete embedded with metal, glass, mirrors, nails, and wire

Today the High owns the largest public collection of objects from Paradise Garden and actively continues to collect work by Finster. The Museum most recently acquired a group of work donated by poet Susie Mee, who grew up in Trion, Georgia, near Finster’s home, and befriended him when she was a young girl. Mee’s father was the town undertaker, and Finster painted several tributes to him. Among them is this lively chair that exemplifies Finster’s interest in turning anything and everything—from briefcases to rotary phones to old dental molds—into art.