Word of the Rev. Howard Finster's death on October 22 reminded me of how much we loved his sprawling outdoor gallery, Paradise Gardens. Years before, my husband and I had read about this elderly preacher from the Georgia mountains who had become the most sought-after folk artist in the nation. We had seen his message-laden paintings at a gallery in Washington, d.c., and heard tales of the hometown acres he was turning into an outdoor showplace. When we planned our 1990 summer vacation, we included a swing through northeastern Georgia so we could see Paradise Gardens firsthand.
Seeing may be believing, but it isn't necessarily comprehending. Much of Paradise Gardens, like Finster himself, was exuberantly beyond explanation. His works could be set along a spectrum, with the relatively normal end held down by direct "Repent and be saved" placards little different from those nailed to roadside tree trunks all over the South. In the middle would come the great majority of his works, which bring the gospel message with the special life and genius that set Finster apart. One of my favorites I photographed that day at the Gardens: an oil-drum lid, painted sky blue, then inscribed in red and indigo, "Dying daily is a greator sacrifice than dying dead." (Finster's eccentric spelling and grammar are so ingrained in his work that to correct them would be like toning down his vivid colors.)
The youngest of 13 children, Finster began receiving messages and visions at age 3. He dropped out of school after sixth grade, and at 13 heard a call to preach the gospel. He preached in churches and revival tents all over the region for decades, supporting a growing family by building furniture, repairing bicycles, and farming. ...1
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