Howard Finster Biography

Howard Finster




Painter and sculptor Howard Finster was an internationally recognized Outsider/Visionary artist and minister, born in Valley Head, Alabama, on December 2, 1916. One of thirteen children born to Samuel and Lula Finster, Howard began experiencing "visions" sent to him in dreams at the age of three. He decided that these visions came from God and he continued to receive them as he grew up and entered primary and then secondary school. On the advice of his teacher in 6th grade, he stayed after class for a revival. Inspired, he soon decided to be baptized and dropped out of school at age 13 with the intent to spread the word of his visions. At age 16, he began preaching at local churches and publishing sermons and poetry in local newspapers, and by the late 1930s he'd established his own radio program.

Beginning in 1940 and lasting over three decades, Finster ministered throughout Georgia, working as a brick layer, carpenter, plumber, and bicycle and small-engine repairman to support his wife Pauline and five children. Throughout this time Finster would translate onto paper and other surfaces what he called "painted sermons", using pictographic symbols he claimed were signs from God delivered by the Holy Ghost. He referred to this written symbology as the "Unknown Language", and it would appear in his artwork throughout his career. After moving to Trion, Georgia, the surrounding landscape became his medium as he began to build an outdoor museum on his property, with the intent of recreating in miniature one of everything invented by humankind. These small sculptures were created with various found objects and what items Finster had at hand, leaving nothing to waste. When he began to run out of space, he and his family moved to Pennville in 1961 and began building the "Plant Farm Museum" - later to be called "Paradise Gardens". Four years later, he retired from preaching to devote his time to the art garden.

Finster's reputation as an Outsider artist grew exponentially once the Plant Farm Museum was established, and despite the ridicule directed at him by his neighbors, he attracted the attention of tourists from throughout the South and beyond, garnering a write-up in Esquire and interviews with local news stations. This led to the interest of art collectors throughout the U.S. and abroad who began to purchase the found object works. However, it wasn't until 1976 that Finster began to pursue art in the formal sense of the word, after experiencing a vision instructing him to "paint sacred art". He began painting religious motifs as well as pop culture and historic icons, politics, and UFOs, using paper, cardboard, wood planks, metal, and eventually painting the structures on the property. These compositions often included written words and his Unknown Language symbology. In the same vision, Finster claimed that God told him to create 5,000 images to spread the word of his gospel, which led him to number every painting he created. He accomplished that number by 1985 but continued to create and number his works; at the end of his life the number neared 47,000.

In 1976 Finster participated in his first exhibition and in 1977 painted four works for the Library of Congress. In 1983 he was approached by the Georgia-based band R.E.M. to film their debut music video, "Radio Free Europe", in Paradise Gardens. The following year, they collaborated on an album cover design for 
Reckoning and dedicated their song "Maps and Legends" to Finster. In 1985, the band The Talking Heads commissioned an album cover for Little Creatures, later selected by Rolling Stone magazine as Album Cover of the Year. When the Summer Olympic Games took place in Georgia in 1996 he was approached by the marketing committee to produce two human-sized Coca-Cola bottles decorated to his liking. In 1998 he was approached by publisher Mark Patsfall of Mark Patsfall Graphics to reproduce a suite of drawings, created by Finster in 1982 and titled Finster's Folk Image, as etchings. The result was a small-edition, loose-leaf portfolio of four drawings titled Folk Image, approved of and signed by Finster.

By the end of his life, Howard Finster's art garden, individual works, and his numerous collaborations had catapulted him to fame as one of the leading recognized Outsider artists in the world, with his work included in international collections and museums. He had inadvertently helped to spur the movement, which gained traction in the 1970s, to recognize "outsider" work as true art and worth as much examination as that produced by degreed artists. Finster died in Georgia on October 22, 2001. Paradise Gardens, which fell into disrepair after his death, is currently in the process of being restored.