Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Afternoon in Paradise

March 19, 2014
Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden
Summerville, GA

At the age of 59, Howard Finster--a man with a sixth grade education living in one of the poorest counties in Georgia--had a vision that changed his life.  When he dipped his finger in tractor enamel while painting a bicycle, the paint took the appearance of a face, and he heard a voice say the words, “paint sacred art.”  Although he had been preaching at Baptist churches for 25 years, and had done, by his own count, 28 other occupations, he had no art training and had never produced artwork.  Nonetheless, he heeded God’s call to paint 5,000 works, and by the time he died 25 years later he had made 46,991 numbered artworks, exceeding God’s expectations by a wide margin. 

His outdoor studio and display space, Paradise Garden, was a glorious celebration of God’s Holy Word interpreted via colorful paintings and zany montages of cast-off items in Finster’s day.  He said, “My garden is a way for me to get my messages out all over the world.  And that’s my responsibility.  Someday, sometime people on this planet are going to realize they need what Howard Finster’s got, whether it’s religion, whether it’s art, or whether it’s building a Garden.”  

Fast forward to today, 13 years after Howard’s death, and most of his art that could be hauled off and put on a wall is now in the collections of museums like Atlanta’s High Museum of Art or the Smithsonian, or it is in private collections.  But, his eclectic dimensional art remains.  Winding sidewalks inset with bright mosaics of broken crockery and mirrors, marbles, and unexpected items-- a gun, kitchen utensil or a man’s pipe--lead to whimsical outbuildings, recycled material statuary, and a swampy water garden. 

The four-story sixteen-sided World’s Folk Art Church towers over the garden at forty feet high.  Unfortunately, since Howard had no architectural training, it has been deemed unstable, despite being divinely inspired, so we weren’t allowed inside.  The plan is to eventually make it safe for public use, but since there are no architectural plans, and it was not built according to accepted engineering principles, it may be a while before we see the inside of this place. (And where the money is coming from, we have no clue--the admission charge for us “seniors” was just $3 apiece--and at less than 4,000 visitors a year, the garden is not a big money-maker.)

On one side of the church is one of Howard’s favorite quotes: “I took the pieces you threw away, put them together by night and day.  Washed by the rain. Dried by the sun. A million pieces all in one.”   That is a perfect summary of Paradise. 

There is a stack of bicycle parts several stories high, and a house covered with mirrors inside and out, a pump house made of coke bottles, and a garden wall made of, well, every religious thing you can imagine, and some stuff you would never think of, all set in cement in a way that turns out to be surprisingly charming.   

Here are some of our favorite spots in Paradise:


After two and a half hours strolling through Paradise, we drove about sixty miles east to Jasper, where we stayed at the Woodbridge Inn, which traces its history back to 1880.  Our room is in the historic Inn building, right above the restaurant.  The owner told us that this was his bed room when he was a teenager.   

The Inn is in Downtown Jasper, which has about three blocks of beautifully restored historic buildings, with about a third of them vacant.  This seems to be a plague of small town America, no matter where we travel.   
Oglethorpe Monument in foreground, Woodbridge Inn in background.
A striking monument spire honors James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia Colony.  According to the historic marker nearby, it is made of locally quarried marble, and the marble quarries around here are the largest in the United States.  This monument is old, but there is a brand new Pickens County Court House in the center of town made of dazzlingly white marble, presumably also locally sourced.  The Ten Commandments are inscribed on two massive tablets of marble affixed to the side of the building next door to the Court House, so they are not technically violating anyone’s feelings about the necessity for eparation of church and state.   The Old (1906) Pickens County Jail, also featuring local marble, is one of the most lovely jails we have ever seen.   

Back to the Inn, we enjoy a comfy homey room and a fine dinner, including wine and three courses, and leave having spent less than $100 for our “Bed and Dinner” accommodations.

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