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.
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.1
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