Our subdivision was surrounded by abandoned farms. I used to ride my bike along the eroded red dirt gullies determined to reach the gutted farmhouse and the massive barn and outbuildings. Thinking back, it was a dangerous but incredibly rich way to spend my time. This one particular farm looked like the residents just left without packing a thing. Drapes were still on the windows, dishes in the kitchen cupboards, and clothes still hanging in the bedroom closets. As I walked around the abandoned farm buildings exploring the half-furnished rooms, I would pick up artifacts and imagine what they might be used for. It was a life and world I knew nothing about, and I felt sad that these buildings would just collapse, and no one would remember them or the people who lived in them.
I had just finished 5th grade and we moved down to the Southern United States and we were living in Charlotte, North Carolina from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I didn’t understand why it was an issue, but in 1976 we were the first “Sicilian Catholic” family to move into the neighborhood and it caused some upset to our white Southern Baptist neighbors. Even at this time, it must have been clear that I was destined to be a member of the Queer Community so all of this made me a loner and I didn’t have any friends. I would stay in my room or I would ride my bike through the abandoned farms that surrounded our isolated cul-de-sac street. Our house had a very large deep wood deck, and because the backyard dropped away quickly from the house, the deck hovered well above the lawn. I could stand up under the deck. The shelter it provided was cool and dry in a way that the hot humid Carolina summers made even more inviting. I felt like it was my secret spot. Away from people who would comment on how “tan” I was, or whisper in a loud voice “fairy”.
I wanted to build a fort under the deck. It was a place that I could hide away – be me. It was mine. I began to take as many trips to the abandoned farms as I had time for. I gathered anything I could carry and brought it back to create my fort under the wood deck. My unconscious attempt was to somehow create a safe place out of an intangible world that existed before my time. I was a maker. A doer. I was too young to be philosophical about my actions. I learned about things through the tactile engagement of my hands. I look back on this moment as a time I was most authentic. No one had yet told me that being gay was wrong, that created out of discarded items was considered “low art”, and I was not yet aware that my dyslexia would make it much more difficult to understand and communicate to the dominant culture.
Easily by this age I already understood, in a very unspecific way, that the way I looked at the world and the people around me was different from others. Looking back, I can already see everything that would define my life – a love of history, the built environment, architecture, lost and hidden stories, and a creative drive to reuse seemingly useless items in new ways. It is from this childhood memory that I opened the car door and first saw Howard Finster’s ragged, artistic landscape, Paradise Garden.
I Love Howard Finster, Willie Nelson, and JESUS
This “One-night Stand” experience was much more difficult than I expected. To try to understand Paradise Garden you have to hold several opposing ideas at the same time and with equal validity. I didn’t come to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden without some background and understanding of vernacular forms of artistic practice. Fascinated by the works of Joe Mitner in Birmingham, Alabama, St. E.O.M in Pasaquan, GA, Charles Williams, Hazard, Kentucky, and Minnie Evans in Wilmington, NC. (just to name a few), I am particularly drawn to the spiritual and philosophic foundations of these artists. As an artist who learns from doing and creating, I can understand the innate drive to create even when it makes no contextual sense to others. I guess I traveled to Paradise garden expecting that I would share some creative understanding with Finster, but as I get older, I am finding that I mostly see things which I don’t understand – those things which are known are boring to me and I pay attention to the mysteries. It’s an odd transformation. From a young know-it-all to an old know-nothing. As my life moves forward, out of my control, It seems more and more that I am left behind, too slow to keep up. That’s how Paradise Garden made me feel. Like I was supposed to remember what I was seeing, but the passage of time had rendered me at a loss with memory bookmarks pulled out of the novel. Without the bookmarks, I couldn’t locate where I left off reading.
To add to my confusion, most historic sites have clearly defined boundaries. These boundaries tend to be both literal walls, manicured landscapes, as well as tightly narrowed narratives that have been isolated and run through an Instagram filter. They tend to look really nice, only even better. Other than a chain-link fence cutting through the landscape, the town fabric ebbs and flows over Paradise Garden the way waves invade the dry sandy beach. The term “context” doesn’t apply in this case, as Paradise Garden is in itself more the context of everything around it – as opposed to the other way around.
This is really the key to gaining cognitive access to Howard Finster’s garden. Paradise Garden appears as if it is the physical manifestation of a lifelong’s worth of social media tweets that face off with the world around with snappy, confusing, incoherent, yet possibly meaningful message vignettes. Like clues in a scavenger hunt, you are never really sure where this all is going to lead nor if the entire experience will turn out as significant as you expected. The answer is, for me is, that it took time for me to mature enough to become receptive to these messages. But that has more to do with me than Howard. More on that later.
To tell you the truth, I think Howard himself had difficulty in finding his garden. I’m not so sure he totally knew what it was that he, or his life, would become. I don’t think he was any more complicated than the rest of us, it’s just that he wore that messy complication on the outside. Like many vernacular artists, Howard found a part of himself in religion. His faith permeated everything he created and every conversation he had. The tapestry of Howard’s core seemed to surface in his 13th year when at a Church revival meeting in Violet Hill, he believed his soul was saved. The same year as he found the holy ghost, he was baptized in the Gifford Spring Branch. From that point onward, specifically 2 years following the baptism, he found a calling to be a pastor.
Howard’s life speeds up and he notes in interviews that right after he was saved, he began noticing girls and after dating one girl, he meets his future wife Pauline at church and at 18 years old he is married. By the first year of marriage, they start having children. The young family traveled around the rural countryside from small churches to revival meetings preaching and baptizing the faithful. There are 1940’s images of Howard baptizing people in creeks and preaching as a traveling pastor.
As Howard matures into his pastoral work, he, and his young family experiment with how his calling is executed. How exactly do you save souls? Part of the answer to this question comes from the rural Alabama landscape that Howard lived within. He experienced a world of Church revivals, Billboards, and visual communication. It was a world that was not unlike our present world of social media – everyone pushing for recognition and the label of “influencer”. Howard Finster might be called one of the first social media influencers before such a thing existed. While using old-fashioned communications tools, even before the creation of Paradise Garden, he managed to become a local celebrity. In one photograph of Howard with his young family, we can see him holding onto a matt lithograph of the Sacred Heart of Jesus c. 1930’s. Jesus is illustrated in classic Christian outfit wrapped in a red cloth trimmed in yellow. The background is a vibrant lime green and while documenting the Christian symbolism, still adheres to the 1930’s era of color use and aesthetics. It is very much of its time.
It seems important for Howard to clearly state, in physical form through embracing the framed illustration, his dedication to the Holy Ghost and his pastoral work. The lithograph is a very common, easily affordable, object of religious iconography from the period. His pride comes not from the value of the print, but from his and his families’ membership in the body of Jesus. The image becomes the billboard of his faith. For those unknowing of his calling, it is clear to whom his allegiance is drawn. Image matters. A direct picture illustrating faith, indeed speaks across time. Howard seems to be finding his spiritual voice, and that voice is through the use of the physical projecting a billboard of his faith.
Howard seemed to understand and take note of the power of words and mass communication. Starting in January 24, 1934, at age 16, Howard began paying the local Fort Payne Journal Newspaper by the column inch to print short sermons. His first column was entailed “The Ways of Life”. In this first tentative move toward mass communication, Howard sets up a dichotomy that would follow him the rest of his life – there are two ways to live your life, one is to serve the Lord and the other is to serve Satan. He is very clear that there is no in-between place to exist between these polarities. As mentioned already in this essay, Howard used to drive his car, which he called his mobile church, from town to town preaching the gospel from a platform built on the roof. You get the sense that to Howard, preaching the gospel was active and took place in the present moment. Never afraid of being the center of attention, when he painted on the side of his car “The wages of sin is death. Don’t Put God Off” and “Your soul is most precious seek Jesus Today”, he is loudly preaching in the moment. Sure, the result of these choices is life eternal, but the way to get there, Howard is telling us, is to stop what you are doing right now – this second – and choose another path. There is an urgency and speed about his preaching. The clock seems to be ticking, the odometer is turning, gas is running out in the car, and the timing of all of this matters.
It’s a hard task to tease out if at all, the cultural influences of Howard Finster’s art practice. The best way to describe it is as ‘cultural ad-hock-ism”. He seems to have been captivated by individuals such as inventors, acclaimed geniuses, pop culture icons, and uber-successful industrialists. The second category of influences might best be labeled as prescient cultural environments that garnered excitement and were considered innovative at the time.
The first category of individuals can be exemplified by Howard’s love of inventors. He often spoke of them as divinely sent to help humanity’s progress. One such inventor was Henry Ford, a lead industrialist in the mass production of the automobile and founder of the Ford Motor Car Company, who became one of the richest and most notable men of his era. Howard’s dedication to Ford seems to stem from a vision he had in which Henry Ford had driven through his family’s farm. In this vision, he surmised that Ford’s invention of the automobile was in fact the horseless chariots that were foretold in Ezekiel’s vision in the Bible.
“Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. 16 The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 17 When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went. 18 As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them.”
From that point onward, Howard painted Ford, his Model T, and continued sculpting using wheel parts, car wheels, and hubcap covers. Howard’s love of the wheel is undeniable. Everywhere you turn in the garden is another ad-hock creation using circular objects of some type. One can only assume that Howard’s interest may have been fueled by his intimate knowledge of Ezekiel’s multi-layered, symbolic vision. In any case, it is clear that he considered inventors gifts from God. Particularly so Henry Ford. Ford could do no wrong. One can only imagine the ways that Henry Ford served as a role model for Howard in his career as a pastor. It is by no accident that Howard, for many years, used his second-hand automobile as his sanctified mobile church. To those who do not have Ezekiel’s vision in mind, the use of the car as a method of proselytizing may seem strange, but to those who understand the mystical qualities of the invention it takes on the mythology of a Greek God. Just as Ford was a Master of Mass Production, Howard also seems to have also absorbed the possibilities of mass production in his pastoral artistic work. Eventually, Howard would take this concept and begin his assembly line production of the signature Finster artworks, clocks, and objects. I can only surmise that he felt that his artworks would produce the same tectonic shift as Ford’s horseless carriage.
The second category of influence for Howard seems to have been large-scale environments that miniaturized and encapsulated a philosophy. Once again, we can look to Henry Ford seeking examples. Ford was responsible for creating Greenfield Village. Dedicated in 1929 opened to the public in 1933, it was the first outdoor living history site of its kind in the United States. Starting with a Tabula Rosa, Ford designed the complex to house historic buildings, which were moved from all over the country, in a format that would replicate a traditional American rural town and serve as educational tools of communication through public visitation and interpretation. Formulated through a tight personal, and biased filter of selected history, Ford crafted the narrative to fit his message of American exceptionalism and inventive spirit. Greenfield Village was a manifestation of a distinctly Henry Ford perspective of the American landscape. I can only surmise that Ford’s highly crafted and nostalgic Greenfield Village would have sparked awareness in Howard in the power to communicate through a heavily nostalgic, and culturally reductive environment.
In addition to Henry Ford and Greenfield Village, Howard spoke of the roadside stop of Rock City as inspiration for Paradise Gardens. The attraction is located at Lookout Mountain Georgia close to the Tennessee state line and Chattanooga. Rock City, opened in 1932, consists of over 20 separate location-based themed narratives, A Gnome Village and Cave, a Fairyland Clubhouse, 10 cottages, all connected together through winding paths and bridges. Names of odd rock formations were listed as “Balanced Rock” and “Fat Man’s Squeeze”. The resulting creation is a mixture of natural history, Appalachian folk tales, Fairy Tales, all mixed with Gnomes. Rock City’s success was the direct result of an extraordinary marketing and public relations effort. Much of its messaging came from the novel idea to paint over 900 barns and roofs enticing people to visit “The World-Famous Rock City”.
There is significant visual and experiential DNA that is shared between Greenfield Village, Rock City, and Finster’s Paradise Garden. For instance, you travel to a remote location that consists of a series of isolated vignettes, each having its own narrative but tied together by a common theme but sprinkled with nostalgic and aspirational longing. There is a mixture of entertainment and education which produces experiences that necessitate a suspended sense of reality and suppressed context. The power of a controlled message, shared symbolism, and language to drive an audience was a strong lesson learned – Howard’s purpose was to save souls, but first he had to catch their interest. As you will see when you visit Paradise Garden, Howard took mental notes of how powerful language and signage can be in fulfilling a mission.
More than a built physical environment, Paradise Garden produces an experience similar to inhabiting a book. As you wander around the grounds you are violently attacked with quotes from the bible, quotes from Howard himself – you don’t know if a sign is revelatory or simply wayfinding. Perhaps it is both? Much like Rock City various sign text messages are threaded together to form disparate narrative experiences, Paradise Gardens pulls you from one Sunday school lesson to another. Walking through Paradise Garden forced me to recall the imagery of Robert Venturi & Denise Scott-Brown, important Architects of our modern era, in which they investigate the use of bold, pop imagery as a form of proselytizing commercialized as well as symbolic meaning. One of the more powerful analyses of this concept can be found in the formative, 1972 “Learning From Las Vegas”. The investigation maps out the entire Las Vegas strip not in terms of architecture but in terms of messages and text of all of the signage. It is from this conceptual point I jump into Howard Finster’s experimental and imaginary world of crafted, miniature, heavenly cities of roadside attractions.
Paradise Garden resists being viewed as merely an eccentric grouping of objects. It refuses the fetishizing visual gaze of the onlooker in favor of the cerebral literary mediation found in a cloister. It’s this dialogue between the visual and the literary that Paradise Garden contains meaning. It is not an easy world to simply visit as a tourist, taking a few photographs with your smartphone and then going on your way. It requires silence, contemplation, and time. Time is needed to consider all of the ramifications of the decaying physical mass of the landscape. The existing built environment feels like a medieval city, built over centuries, with an ecclesiastical Folk-Art Church and cloister complex in the center filled with memorials, tombstones, small reliquaries, stained glass windows, rooms within rooms, all illuminated with a complex layering of philosophical and environmental visual context. It is difficult to get a complete understanding of the Folk Church complex as it’s accumulated additions and subsequent landscape additions seem to have expanded and blended with the other parts of Paradise Garden like mold in a bowl of fruit.
Composing A Visual Language
Throughout Howard Finster’s life, he was known to convey complex spiritual ideas through visual language. Not unlike the traditional Southern Baptist diagrams used in Sunday School and Doctrinal Classes throughout the South. Finster’s diagrams however took on an almost pop quality about them. Blending text, symbols, drawings, and color, he would craft visual stories that surpassed simple locational diagrams. He continued to develop his complex layering as he began painting his visions of the spiritual world. The compositional organization takes on a symbolic visual of stages and layers of spiritual existence. You can see this in most of his paintings. He has a lower (earth) band; a middle (existence/Life) band; and an upper (Heaven) band. The colors retain these bands, and his character placements reinforce these bands.
Perhaps the single most iconic element of Paradise Garden is The Folk Church. Howard spent much of his public platform establishing creation mythology that nicely fit into his well-crafted life narrative. The story goes that Howard was finding it difficult as a pastor in other churches because of his notoriety. After leaving a pastorship over this issue, he began thinking about building his own church – one that wouldn’t restrict his more liberal, accepting views of humankind. There existed a church building adjacent to his Paradise Garden land and the congregation had vacated that building in favor of a newer larger building. If he could afford to buy it, Howard imagined his new church congregation housed within this building. After a bit of negotiation, Howard purchased the old, wood frame, church building and combined the land with his existing Paradise Garden landscape complex. Starting in 19?? And based upon the visions that Howard had, the simple wood church was added on to and expanded multiple times until it resembles some extent the building that greets you today.
According to Tom Patterson’s personal interviews with Howard, no rulers or measuring tapes were used. Howard pulled a stray plank of wood out of a woodpile and that was the only measuring tool he used to build the Folk Church. Howard told Patterson that God had guided his every cut and measurement in the construction of the Folk Church additions. The Church structure consisted of the pre-existing rectangular single gabled building, a shed addition that expanded the interior, a glass window enclosed solar room addition, an exterior memorial tri-part archway, and of course the five-story, 3 tiered, 18 sided highly decorated tower steeple.
Today, although a full restoration is in the planning stages, the church structure is failing, missing elements, sagging in multiple directions, and no one is allowed to enter the building as it is unsafe. Its appearance resists a formal architectural composition study because, on the surface, it seems obviously cobbled together using elements that were on hand. During this One-night Stand, I forced myself to approach this building as a manifestation of Howard’s spiritual and life philosophy – indeed not an ad-hoc construction built by an untrained architect. It seemed to me that the Folk Church, even in its present state of decay, deserved a more intentful analysis than merely fetishizing it for its “outsider art eccentricities and free associations”. I am glad I did.
In performing conjectural architectural analysis on the floorplan, I quickly began to see formal connections between the seemingly incongruent additions. Certain design moves that seem natural need to be considered within the context of Howard Finster’s personal education as a designer, painter, and sculptor. The most fundamental design move is that Howard centers the tower bi-laterally pushing the diameter of the lowest tower step to the outermost walls of the original wood-frame church. He then centers the other dimension as well which maintains equal spaces on both sides of the tower’s footprint. These may seem like simple moves, but I would argue that they illustrate a clear and distinct attitude toward design and context. The various additions also show some relationship to the imaginary bi-lateral symmetry of the tower geometry (see diagram).
In looking at the tower geometries one can see that the simple center lines of the tower are geometrically halved twice to arrive at the respective tower dimension. The 16-sided geometry of the tower is far from a simple move and one that would take constant reference taking as the tower construction rose upward. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the tower maintains the 16 sides all the way up the 3 levels. Another geometric action of note is that the centerline organization of the tower results in a structural column – not an opening. The openings occur between the columns. Howard could have shifted the entire plan ½ bay and aligned the windows with the centerline and the primary entry door on the street level. In many forms of architecture, the centerline results in an opening, such as the example of the Pantheon where the centerline results in the access opening. As an architect, the centerline resulting in the door opening for access expresses an acknowledgment of the human element, placing the structure at the centerline speaks of a different priority. Howard’s tower, in his mind, was not bound by the pre-existing conditions of the original church. His Folk Church, just like Howard himself, was to stand apart from the structures and dogma of Southern Baptist confinement not blend in with it.
Although Howard made it clear that he had only his visions from God to guide the design of the Folk Church, we can find architectural precedents as comparisons. These comparisons may seem farfetched as Howard was not well-traveled. However, by this time he had a constant flow of visitors from all over the world coming to experience his Paradise garden. There are also many examples of people bringing postcards and images of churches from their travels or homeland. Today you can see one of these gift images displayed in the gallery loggia (a gift photograph of Bath Abby Nave interior, Bath, England). It can only be conjectural that these postcard images influenced Howard’s design choices. His ravenous visual appetite paired with his ability to successfully and bombastically combine discarded fragments end up producing a fog-like mythological visual landscape. One never knows if it is brilliant, or derivative, or full-on fiction – perhaps it’s all of the above.
Just like Howard Finster absorbed Southern Baptist Christianity and made them his own, he did the same with the small wood-frame church that was to become the Folk-Art Church. Tracking the evolution of additions to the church gives us an idea of the process and intent Howard gave to his environmental creative practice. If one pays particular attention to the limits of each preceding phase of construction, you can read between the lines and understand how Howard started with the limitations of a situation and then used those limitations to create entirely new and unexpected opportunities.
Howard’s ability to capitalize on limitations seems, to me, to be at the core of his creative practice. He didn’t start his “sacred art” until he was about 59 years old and he had accumulated decades worth of lessons gained from Henry Ford and his use of mass production, Rock City and the effectiveness of mass communication, and a lifetime of experimentation with turning trash into something that would garner attention. Certainty he was creating as far back as when he was a teenager and then as a traveling pastor sitting atop his modified automobile preaching to passersby, but it was really later in life that these things seemed to coalesce into a representative package.
The path of his creative activity makes it hard to cite one era or period of significance to Paradise Garden. He didn’t start this version of his religious art until later in life and in some ways his earlier life’s work was more deeply centered on his religious practice and family. There was a point in Paradise Garden’s appeal that the public was so drawn to visiting that Howard and his wife had to vacate their house, move off-site to another home miles away. Howard would return to greet his visitors, but his direct everyday creative activity and work on the garden would diminish until the garden environment slowly started to be sold off and decay. His daughter, Beverly states that the decay of the garden became so upsetting to her that she had to stop visiting. She was sad that visitors would never really understand the vibrant experience of the garden when Howard was on site daily, adding to its messages and touching up and repairing the quickly eroding textural sermons.
Great strides have been made by the present stewards of the garden to bring everything back to life, the present state keeps one aware of the fleeting and transitory relationship between ideas and the built environment. A quick comparison between what the garden looked like during Howard’s lifetime and what it now appears as insists on a moment of pause and reflection. This pause forces us to consider fundamental concepts of preservation, restoration, and meaning. To what degree is the value of Paradise Garden found in Howard’s intellectual stamina and not in the physical manifestation of that effort? Maybe Howard’s efforts simply delay the certain decay and disintegration of things back into the landscape and any intent on our part to prop up his work would run counter to his original intent?
As I walked around Paradise Gardens, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was 5 years old again and I was exploring those abandoned farmhouses and barnyards. The same contradictory visual landscape existed between the two experiences. There was a readable intentful placement and hint of purpose, yet nothing absolute nor definitive. Just like the half-inhabited farmhouses with kitchen plates still on the tables and canned food in the cupboards, The Paradise Garden landscape felt equally confusing. I knew Howard’s purpose was embedded in everything he crafted but there was still an element of disjuncture about his placement and connective tissue.
I suspect a discarded object became the catalyst for an entirely new-themed experience. Each creation fed off of the others yet also by some artistic magnetic opposite attraction kept things from feeling continuous. There is a sense of experiences and objects having their own center and discrete “thingness” while at the same time, confusingly, blending with everything around it. I didn’t get a sense that Howard worked off of a grand plan. No dogmatic theory or concept. This is not to say that Paradise Garden is meaningless, rather the environment forces you to appreciate its meaning not only from the physical but from higher levels of perception. After all, it’s just junk.
When Howard wrote on his rusty, metal donation box, “Donators help write the Bible story”, he really meant it. Contributions to Paradise Gardens would continue his work in writing the sermon of his life through plywood cutout paintings, junk sculpture, hand-painted signage, and decorated sheds, and the broken and recombined mirrors throughout the landscape kept reminding me of my personal place within this constantly moving vibrating and decaying fairytale.
SPECIAL THANK YOU:
Johnny Yeagley – Research & Logistics
Tina Cox – ED of Paradise Garden, for inviting us to stay on-site at the new lodging and review of this text.
Kevin Greenland – CADD illustrations