Finster's Roadside Religion
by Jake Cole
Until March 12, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University exhibited the works of Georgian folk artist Howard Finster. A former Baptist reverend who painted sacred art, Finster committed himself to art in 1976, and when he died in 2001, left more than 46,000 works. Fortunately, many of them can be seen in the permanent collection at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
Of all the artists throughout history to dedicate their services unto God, Finster is the most like a child who brings home deformed, papier-mâché atrocities for Mom, who must warily tack them on the fridge to avoid a scene. Disproportionate body features—all bulging eyes and Cubist rictus grins—typify Finster’s paintings and sculptures. Using pop culture icons like Elvis, historical figures like George Washington and religious figures such as John the Baptist, Finster crafted screwball paeans to God using everything from tractor acrylic to the tools he once used to repair bicycles.
A consummate showman, Finster built his magnum opus, a sprawling den of ever-expanding folk art dubbed “Paradise Gardens,” as a roadside attraction. It bordered on satire, presenting faith as an outdated curio for bored families looking for something to pacify pestering children. In fact, Neil Gaiman used the conceit of roadside attractions for similar purposes in “American Gods.” Paradise Gardens flourished in the 1980s, with Finster preaching to visitors from around the world and performing his own songs on the banjo. The gardens are now in the process of being restored and preserved.
Were he was not so indefatigably sincere even at his most attention-courting, Finster might resemble the huckster Bible salesman stealing prosthetics in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” Yet, there is a certain childlike innocence in the old man’s work that captures something of the finer side of downhome religion.
Much as he loved to use famous figures, Finster’s own dubious skill resulted in a sameness to each face, playing into the idea that we are are all God’s children. That the faces all have a grotesque, misshapen quality suggests O’Connor might have had the right perception of us after all.
An unlikely visual doppelgänger for O’Connor’s prose, Finster’s art contains the ugliness and the beauty of Southern tradition in equal measure. And has there ever been a more quintessentially Southern view of hell than the one promising the eternal torment of “NO COLD COKES”?
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta contains a permanent collection of Finster’s work and the largest public collection of objects from Paradise Gardens. In addition, the annual Finster Fest Folk Art and Music Festival will take place May 14 -15 at Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia. Photos were provided by the High Museum of Art.
Jake Cole is a Journalism major at Auburn University and one of Deep South’s summer interns. Get to know him in our “Contributors” section.