Baptist preacher and folk artist Howard Finster died Monday at the age of 84. This profile of him and his work originally appeared in the July 15, 1988, issue of Christianity Today.

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
—Genesis 2:8

Summerville, Georgia, tucked away in the northwest corner of the state, is an unlikely environment for an artist of national standing. It is, nonetheless, the home of the Reverend Howard Finster, a visionary, a prophet, and an artist of national, even international, reputation.

As it is with prophets, Finster was seen as an oddity by his community even after fame had found him in the New York and Chicago art worlds. He had turned his two-and-a-half-acre backyard into a mysterious land someone dubbed "Paradise Garden," explaining his method thus: "I took the pieces you threw away and put them together by night and day washed by Rain dried by sun a million pieces all in one."

He has spent years completing a five level Folk Art Church next to the garden. He told this author that at one point he had it checked for safety by a group of architects from the University of Georgia. When they asked for his plans, it became clear the project was mapped out in Finster's head, not on paper. It was, nonetheless, pronounced safe. Ann Oppenhimer reports (in "Sermons in Print") that a neighbor told him his church looked like a wedding cake. Not to be bested, Finster told her that her house looked like a peanut butter sandwich. It was only after he went to California to appear on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, and his name was in TV Guide, that his community accepted his celebrity status.

A "second Noah"

As it is with prophets, Finster claims to see things others don't: "I have visions of other worlds. I been out there I seen them out there I am here as a second Noah to point the people to the world beyond."

He reports encounters with angels and superhuman figures, all fitting into a larger matrix of vision with one overriding message: "Repent."

The art objects themselves have a power, charm, and an investigative visual sophistication that some would say places them beyond folk art and into mainstream American art. Using any available material and weather resistant enamel paint, he transforms surfaces with words and patterns to make his images (from animals to angels, from hell to heaven, from Elvis to Jesus) and messages clear. The range of his output reflects his fertile mind: easel painting, boxes filled with layers of painted and decorated plexiglass, and mirrors that tease the eyes, assemblages of casted cement.

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No art without the message

Finster was, however, reportedly dropped from one Washington, D.C., gallery that got tired of him calling them "infidels." They wanted the art without the message-but that is not possible. As Peter Morrin of Atlanta's High Museum has said, "His paintings and constructions are not reasoned depictions contrived with creative detachment, but representations of belief. Finster fashions neither illusions nor metaphors of experience, but pressing, urgent visual exhortations to a Christian life" (in "Howard Finster in Context"). "All people are on the road of eturnity no one can turn back Get ready to meet Jesus Christ face to face," declaims a sign on the side of his studio.

Finster sees his studio as a great fountainhead from which his message and visions flow. And flow they do. The Talking Heads rock group collected his work for years, and they had him design an album cover. After it went gold, The Atlanta Journal/Constitution reports Howard as saying, "That's 35 million messages." As he wrote on The Great Wild Duck, a piece he did in 1984 (numbered as 3000 and 238 works of art), "Begening here in Georgia to the four winds of this earth from my last work of art to my craddle of birth. It will take a life time working day and night to reach the corners of this dark world with my little light." As of August 1987, he had made "6000.775 work of our time," and I have an eight-foot Jesus figure that is not numbered.

A witness to redemption

Howard Finster's significance for Christian viewers (as well as for the larger community of mankind) is centered on Paradise Garden, the harbinger of his message of repentance. The thousands of objects he has scattered throughout the world can best be seen as fragments radiating from this essential core of his vision.

Walking past the ducks and chickens among the free-form concrete boulders and rusting piles of our industrial castaways, ordered and transformed by a visionary mind, one cannot help thinking of the garden eastward in Eden. To encounter oneself in the mirror fragments in a rickety shed is to be reminded how far we have fallen. Still, the transformation of trash, which is Paradise Garden, is witness to the possibility of redemption. As the trash can next to the church reminds us, "Jesus Saves."

Despite his apparent craziness, Howard Finster proclaims a sane message: that we have come from somewhere, that we are going somewhere, and that we are not alone. Often he allows us to see these facts through the temporal use of space travel. He is an eternal child playing among the stars: "Through the scattered clouds I hear his voice, I know his wonderful call, when I reach the ceiling of gravity near the floor of space above, where every star is shinning bright, in the deep blue sky above … I can take a leap ten thousand miles and swing on the vines of grace, on my way to the City of Gold, skipping along through space … " (from Howard Finster's Vision of 1982).

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Howard Finster's Paradise Garden is a signpost pointing the way to other worlds. It both looks back to the Garden of Eden and forward to a city and a garden promised by God: "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God" (Rev. 2:7).

Now 71, Finster is slowing down—but only by his standards. He still works night and day. "My life has been a living sacrifice for you all I have no retirement," he tells us. His compulsion continues to be fed by knowing " … some will close their curtains some will pull down shades some will hear my message and they will have it made."

Edward C. Knippers, Jr., is an artist living in Arlington, Virginia. This article originally appeared in the July 15, 1988, issue of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

Howard Finster's official site has a biography, pictures of Paradise Gardens, and photos of his artwork.

Obituaries for Howard Finster include those from: Associated Press, Reuters, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Chicago Sun-Times.

Jack Blackburn's Howard Finster: Man of Visions has extensive information on Finster and photos of his artwork.

Howard Finster, Stranger from Another World: Man of Visions Now on This Earth by Howard Finster and Tom Patterson is available at

See Finster's album covers for R.E.M.'s Reckoning and the Talking Heads' Little Creatures.

In 1999, Christianity Today interviewed Finster as part of an article on "outsider artists."

Frederica Mathewes-Green interviewed Finster for a 1996 World magazine cover story.