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Paradise Gardens: A Million Pieces all in One

Apr 16 2014

by Claire Cothren

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Howard Finster: Visionary? Prophet? Maybe. Artist? Absolutely. Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Georgia is a foray into the mind of an intriguing man who spent his life creating art and turning his home into a playground of folk art. Finster was born in Alabama and claims to have had his first vision at just 3 years old, in which he was told by his deceased sister that he would “be a man of visions.” How appropriate. He began preaching at the age of 16, and continued to preach for 33 years until retiring to be a full-time artist. He bought the land that would become Paradise Gardens after running out of space at another location in 1961. Here he built sculptures, walls, and even buildings out of everything he could find, including other people’s discarded lawn ornaments. He also worked as a bicycle salesman, but when he dedicated himself to art, he cast his tools in a concrete sidewalk. This section of sidewalk was removed and is part of a permanent collection of Finster’s on display at Atlanta’s High Museum.

Quitting your day job by Howard Finster. Credit: www.high.org
Quitting your day job by Howard Finster. Credit: www.high.org

Finster’s work ranges in theme from pop culture to politics, and aliens to history, but the overwhelming theme is religious, and almost every work at Paradise Gardens includes one if not many bible verses. All of the paintings are two dimensional with no perspective, and all are numbered because God told Finster to create 5,000 works to spread the gospel. By 1989, the paintings were numbered in the tens of thousands. Finster is well known for his album covers created for R.E.M. and Talking Heads, and he also painted four paintings for the Library of Congress. Contemporary artist Keith Haring created a piece at the gardens, although it’s a little worse for wear.

Keith Haring sculpture
Keith Haring sculpture. I know you’re singing “The Lion King” theme song too.

Even while Finster continued to create artwork at Paradise Gardens, his failing health caused the place to fall into disrepair. He passed away in 2001 (hopefully God was satisfied that he had fulfilled his wishes,) but the Gardens stayed open until 201o when the Paradise Garden Foundation received a grant to restore the site, and it reopened to the public in 2012. Summerville is about 2.5 hours from Athens and well worth the drive to see such an iconic place. We fought for a parking spot at a local park and enjoyed a little “Finster Fest,” a festival celebrating the reopening of the Gardens, before we jumped a shuttle to the actual site.

To us average non-visionaries, Paradise Gardens is a complete nonsensical maze of random scultpures, makeshift buildings, and “recycled” materials. Every item is a piece of art, and every surface has been painted. Finster’s actual house serves as a visitor’s center, and you continue around through the gardens. The largest structure on the property is the “chapel” which features a very large rotunda on the top. I was pretty concerned about the structural stability of this building, but it was certainly worth exploring.

www.nooga.com
Anybody have a hard hat? Credit: www.nooga.com

Describing the gardens in words is as useful as white linen before Easter. The senses are totally overwhelmed as every surface is a canvas. Long verses and writings cover many of the paintings and works, and walls and walls of concrete and glass objects surround much of the area. Paradise Gardens is a place you absolutely must visit to truly understand (if that’s possible,) so here I offer some photos as a sneak peak.

Jesus and Finster, and a donkey.
Jesus and Finster, and a donkey.
Bicycle parts/Hubcap tower
Bicycle parts/Hubcap tower
Gnome house
Gnome house

Howard intended to stay at Paradise Gardens for all eternity, but this was not meant to be. He even built a small chapel and placed a coffin in the front, where he wanted to be cremated and interred with letters from his adoring fans. I cannot say if there are letters in the coffin or not, but Howard never made it there, and is buried in a cemetery in his hometown. Regardless of the location of his actual body, Howard’s spirit is alive and well at Paradise Gardens. After spending an afternoon at his inspiring sanctuary, you might just start having some visions of your own.

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SIDE TRACKS

Finster Fest: If you can, plan your visit around this two-day summer festival with food, music, local art and plenty of Finster fanatics.

Chickamauga and Chatanooga National Military Park: This Civil War battlefield is about a half hour north of Summerville, and the skirmish here, the Battle of Chickamauga, was an important turning point in the war. The park features an impressive visitor’s center with an extensive historic gun collection, and I highly recommend taking the guided tour for the full interpretive experience. Every state represented in the battle has a monument or memorial here, and the park is used by locals for hiking, biking, and general outdoor recreation.

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