PARADISE GARDENS TIMELINE
1916 (December 2) Howard Finster was born in Valley Head, Alabama.
1935 Finster married his wife, Pauline.
1940s Finster created his first garden “park” with mankind’s inventions as its theme.
1961 Finster moved to Trion, Georgia and purchased land to establish the Plant Farm Museum.
1965 Finster retired from the ministry to devote his time to the Plant Farm Museum.
1975 Esquire magazine published an article in which it renamed Plant Farm Museum as ” Paradise Garden.”
1976 Finster had a vision to paint sacred art.
2001 After suffering declining health for several years, Finster died.
2011 Chattooga County purchased Paradise Gardens.
2012 Paradise Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The story of Paradise Gardens begins with Reverend Howard Finster and his unique vision for biblical ministry. Finster’s story begins at the age of three, when he had his first divine vision. At sixteen, Finster had a vision that inspired him to preach and host revival meetings throughout Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. After years as a reverend, he decided to retire in 1965 when he asked his congregation on a Sunday evening what his message was that morning and no one could remember. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there.
In 1976, at the age of sixty, Howard Finster was rubbing paint on a bicycle in the backyard of his home on Knox Street in Summerville, Georgia paint on his finger he saw a face. “Paint sacred art,” it told him. Finster replied that he didn’t think he could do art because he wasn’t a professional. “I don’t even have no education in that.” The voice kept asking him, “How do you know?” Eventually he pulled a dollar bill from his wallet, tacked it onto a piece of plywood, and began painting a portrait of George Washington. So began his folk art ministry at what soon came to be called Paradise Gardens, a neighborhood block of religious visionary works by himself and other artists.
Over the next twenty-five years, Rev. Finster dedicated himself to the continued development of the gardens. Paradise Gardens became an Edenic jungle of paintings, sculptures, and buildings nestled among the trees and muddy trails, overgrown with weeds and vines. He wanted to collect everything in the world, so that his Paradise would contain all of creation, natural and cultural alike. Paradise Gardens was to be his own cabinet of curiosities. Before his death, Finster completed over 47,000 works of art that were spread throughout the gardens and eventually hosted in museums all across the world.
By 1985, Rev. Finster had completed 5,000 works of art in Paradise Gardens and began to gain notoriety for his artwork on R.E.M’s and The Talking Heads’ album covers. His fame grew and he and the gardens were featured in the documentary Athens Georgia Inside Out. In 1983, Finster explained to Johnny Carson in plain terms his decision to build the gardens on the “Tonight Show.” He said, “I built that garden because I had a feeling to do it just like you have to scratch when you’re itching.” Unfortunately, after his passing, the heirs did not have quite a clear vision.
Howard Finster died in 2001 from complications related to diabetes. Upkeep of Paradise Gardens was left to various family members and then to an Alabama-based nonprofit. During this time period, the gardens were largely neglected.
Subsequently, however, Chattooga County native Jordan Poole took the lead in a wholesale restoration of Paradise Gardens. He was able to get the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s to place Paradise Gardens on its 2010 list of Places in Peril, the first step in a two-year process of purchasing the property for restoration. In 2010, the Appalachian Regional Commission extended a grant to Chattooga County to attempt to promote Paradise Gardens as a heritage tourism site. Then, in December of 2011, Chattooga County purchased Paradise Gardens and began the long process of restoring the neglected artwork. In April of 2012, Paradise Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In May of 2012, the gardens reopened, and in June of 2012, it became the recipient of a $445,000 grant from ArtPlace to continue restorations.
While it is difficult to separate the beliefs contained within Paradise Gardens and held by Rev. Finster from the art they embody, there are a few components that must be highlighted. Many of the paintings and biblical invocations reveal a sort of hell, fire, and brimstone style of ministry. Perhaps this is a component to Paradise Gardens, but it is not what defines Finster’s folk art ministry. What has drawn visitors, young artists, and even R.E.M. to Rev. Finster is the visible genuine love of all people in his art. Oft repeated in paintings throughout Paradise Gardens is “I NEVER SEEN A PERSON I DIDN’T LOVE.” In other places, “Welcome to Paradise Gardens. God is love.”
Further, Paradise Gardens is a place of creation, creativity, and life. In biblical tradition, Paradise or the Garden of Eden is the jewelof God’s original creation. It is the first human home, where God created them, male and female, in God’s own image. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read that on the sixth day, as the culmination of the entire work of creation, God created human beings in God’s own image. But what does it mean to say that humans were created in the image of God? Many things to many people, no doubt, but what we know by that point in Genesis 1 is that God is, above all, creative in life-giving and world-making ways. In this light, to be creative, to create, is to be in the image of God. To be in the image of God is to be creative like the creator. Creativity itself is the image of God. The human form divine, as William Blake put it. Imago dei; the art act.
Adam and Even were banished from the garden, and God went with them. But here we have a return to the Garden and a return of the Garden as the place of communion with the divine. Creativity becomes a means of redemption and restoration. Paradise Gardens is a place of redemption. It is a work of communal creation that proclaims itself, through that very work, to restore humanity to its divine image. It’s a return to Genesis, a return to being “in the beginning.”
Other references to biblical figures and teachings pervade Paradise Gardens. Although a systematic theological position is difficult to find, there are many themes that accompany the overarching creative elements. Next to one pathway, surrounded by empty cans, ceramic jars and other junk, is a gigantic white clown shoe, like the ones Ronald McDonald wears. It’s about three feet tall and six feet long, and a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans is written across the toes: “How beautiful are the feet of those who spread the gospel of peace.” Not the most beautiful shoe one could make to illustrate this passage. Most of us probably imagine something more like Hermes’ winged foot as it appears in FTD flower delivery ads. But the juxtaposition of a big clunky old-fashioned boot and words describing beautiful feet spreading the gospel of peace is jarring, ultimately calling attention to the text itself, opening it for reflection in fresh ways.
Finster saw himself as a modern-day Noah. He saw his art primarily as a means of preaching that judgment is coming, that hell is real, and that we all had better be ready. One painting is particularly striking. It is a cutout depicting the “Devil and His Wife.” In the foreground the Devil and another female figure (Eve?), naked but for red and blue striped shorts, caress one another while a serpent bites or licks the female figure on the behind. In the background, a fourth figure called “CHILD of DEVIL” watches on. Beneath the two figures is a text message warning against the evils of adultery:
IF YOU DEFILE YOUR BODY GOD WILL DESTROY STAY CLEAN! DON’T DEFILE YOUR BODY ADULTERY IS SEX WITHOUT MARRIAGE LEGAL SEX EVER WOMAN, HIS HER OWN HUSBAND, EVERR MAN, HAS HIS OWN WIFE. THIS IS LEGAL MARRIAGE. SEX IT CAN STILL BE NASTY AND HARMFUL. SO MANY DEASES NOW YOU CAN CATCH SO EASY TO GET DEFILED. WATCH.
Other messages of imminent judgment for sinful acts occupy various places in the gardens. Elsewhere and inside the walkway are numerous works of art, some by Rev. Finster but most by friends. Throughout Paradise Gardens his own work is mixed in with the word of others. It is a community effort, indeed an expression of a community, a place of creation for many, perhaps for any. Clearly, the theology of this church embraces an ecclesiology firmly grounded on belief in “the priesthood of all believers.” While there is a meshing of a variety of biblical themes throughout Paradise Gardens and Finster’s work there, all is founded upon hospitality and love of all people: “Welcome to Paradise Gardens. God is love.”
Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens is a purposeful attempt to, as his youngest child says, “unite people with God. My father built the gardens like the prophets in the Old Testament built their temples. It was like his temple of God. He had wanted it filled with Bible scriptures and his paintings. His whole purpose, everything that he did was to point people to God.” Although the gardens are inextricably linked to Rev. Finster, they are not about him. Paradise Gardens is about the work of a community, a religious community in some sense, but also an artistic community. Paradise Gardens is a church with Rev. Finster as its founding pastor. And the calling of this church is to create.
Paradise Gardens is a place of generativity, creative energy, and life. Within the gardens, two large structures provide a degree oforientation. First is the famous Garden Chapel, a three-tier round tower topped with a spire that reaches about fifty feet into the air. It looks something like a cross between a leaning wedding cake and the Tower of Babel. Each of its circular levels is decorated with carefully jigsawed wood trim and rows of small windows framed with shiny metal. Although not located physically in the center of the space, it nonetheless functions as the orienting point for the entire Garden. It is the temple, the axis mundi of this paradisal universe. The Garden Chapel has hosted thousands of free wedding and school groups. In the wake of Finster’s death, it was closed to visitors but with the reopening of Paradise Gardens in May of 2012, the Chapel again opened to the public.
The second major structure providing orientation in the Gardens is a long, covered walkway cutting more or less diagonally across the property. Built in the early 1990s, its floor is about nine feet off the ground, set on wooden posts like a beachfront pier running off into the woods. At regular intervals, holes shaped like arched church windows have been cut into the exterior walls. Underneath the walkway there are glass window boxes in which apparently random collections of art and other found stuff are displayed or stored.
Spread throughout the gardens are smatterings of Bible verses, biblical allusions, and other theologically infused artwork reinforcing and proclaiming Finster’s theological beliefs. Rev. Finster called himself “The World’s Minister of the Folk Art Church.” As a result, he believed it was his duty to preach his prophetic vision. All across Paradise Gardens are painted boards nailed to walls, leaning against trees and rocks, and elsewhere. Some are jigsawed shapes painted to resemble angels and secular saints, such as the badly faded bust of Henry Ford nailed to the outside of a raised walkway, on which is written, among other things, “HENRY FORD. INVENTED. THE HORSELESS-CHARIOT – DESCRIBED BY THE PROPHET AND PUT THE WORLD ON MOTOR WHEELS,” a reference to Ezekiel’s vision of the cherubim. Ironically, Ford has become a vehicle for Scripture.
Linda, who worked in the art show and sold tickets to Paradise Gardens, said Finster would put “scriptures and Bible messages on the fronts and backs of his art. He knew people liked his art and he used it to get his word out.” Finster’s art was a medium he used to preach his theological beliefs to “all peoples.”
The material in this profile is adapted and revised from Timothy Beal, Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Profane, and the Substance of Faith.
Beal, Timothy. 2005. Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Profane, and the Substance of Faith. Boston: Beacon Press.