Leslie Lovell, Savannah GA

Howard Finster's vision from God telling him to paint sacred art. Courtsey of Jarvis Cocker.

In 1983 Howard Finster appeared on Johnny Carson which helped to bring Southern Self-Taught Folk Art (Outsider Art) into the mainstream.
A vision from a 15 foot man was what moved Howard Finster to build Paradise Gardens. Video courtesy of Jarvis Cocker.

Howard Finster "Man of Visions" (1916-2001) - Folk Art

Born in 1916 (or 1915, sources are conflicted), self-taught environmental and visionary artist, Howard Finster has become one of the most prominent names in American Folk Art. His story sounds like it was ripped from the pages of a traditional folktale: he was a “man of visions”, having had his first vision at age 3 when he saw his recently deceased sister walking down out of the sky wearing a white gown. He was born again at a Baptist revival at age 13, and became a preacher at 16 — a career he maintained until 1965. Later in life he had another vision: this time, God came to him in the form of a face on his index finger telling him to paint sacred art. This this vision helped him to spread the gospel by producing thousands of paintings. By 1989, Finster had created over 10,000 numbered works. Each piece was dated and numbered with including the time of completion. He described himself as “a stranger from another world”, and said that his brain was “beyond the light of the sun.”

A third life changing vision came to him by a 15 foot man who told him to start making art in his garden. From there Finster began transforming his backyard into the art space that would come to be known as “Paradise Garden” which actually came from an article in Esquire in calling his garden a Paradise. By the time of his death in 2001, Paradise Garden contained over 46,000 pieces of art, including 40,000 paintings. Much of his work focuses on religious and pop culture iconography, depicted sans-perspective on a flat picture plane. Always colorful and painstakingly detailed, Howard Finster claimed that the works were ordained by god.

After being featured in a 1975 Esquire article on self-taught artists, Finster’s star rose higher than ever before. In 1977, he created 4 paintings for the Library of Congress. By the mid-1980’s Finster had appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, produced cover art for R.E.M. and the Talking Heads, and exhibited at the Venice Biennale (1984). His work is now included in hundreds of exhibitions across the country and he was given a major retrospective exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta in 1996. A permanent installation of his work was later added to the museum. Finster’s “Paradise Garden” is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.

Howard Finster’s Early Life

Finster was born at Valley Head, Alabama, to Samuel and Lula Finster, and lived on the family farm as one of 13 children. He attended school from age six into the sixth grade. He said he had his first vision at the age of three years, when he saw his recently deceased sister Abbie Rose walking down out of the sky wearing a white gown. She told him, "Howard, you're gonna be a man of visions."

He became "born again" at a Baptist revival at the age of 13 and began to preach at 16. He gave the occasional sermon at local churches and wrote articles for the town newspaper, and became a full-time pastor at Rock Bridge Baptist Church in 1940. He later served at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Fort Payne, Alabama, shortly before venturing into full-time art.

Album Covers

Finster gained national fame after his collaborative work with Athens, Georgia-based rock band R.E.M.. The group filmed the video for the group's debut single "Radio Free Europe" in Finster's Paradise Gardens in 1983. The following year, the band's singer Michael Stipe and Finster collaborated on a painting for the cover of their second album Reckoning. After that the band made the song "Maps and Legends" (in its third album Fables of the Reconstruction) as an homage to Finster. Along with R.E.M., Finster also appeared in the documentary film Athens, GA: Inside Out, filmed in 1985, in which he tells the story of how he came to be an artist. Finster (and his art) also appears in the band's video for Radio Free Europe.

The band Talking Heads commissioned a Finster painting for Little Creatures in 1985 that was subsequently selected as album cover of the year by Rolling Stone magazine. Other artists to use Finster as an album cover designer include Memory Dean, Pierce Pettis, and Adam Again. In 1994, a portion of his Paradise Garden was installed as part of the permanent collection of Atlanta's High Museum. Bill Mallonee of the Vigilantes of Love (also a Christian from Athens, Georgia) wrote a song inspired by Finster's artwork called The Glory and the Dream in 1994.

Howard Finster was responsible for introducing millions to outsider art, but even with his fame, he remained focused on religious outreach. He said of the Talking Heads album, "I think there's twenty-six religious verses on that first cover I done for them. They sold a million records in the first two and a half months after it come out, so that's twenty-six million verses I got out into the world in two and a half months!"

Artworks by Howard Finster "Man of Visions" (1916-2001) - Folk Art