The Reverend Howard Finster

Allen Ginsberg sitting on a Howard Finster chair in Paradise Garden, Pennville, Georgia, 1988

The Reverend Howard Finster, Baptist preacher and internationally-renowned folk artist passed away 15 years ago. This year (2016) is the Howard Finster Centennial. A centennial show is currently up at the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia (up until February 5, 2017)

A colorful and ubiquitous figure (particularly in the 1980’s) and extraordinarily prolific (it is estimated he made over 46,000 individual art works), he claimed to be divinely inspired.


Howard Finster – Self Portrait as a Young Man – 29000.344 (Finster’s 29,344th art work), via Nina Laden, created, as he recorded, May 14, 1993

Howard Finster:  “ day I was working on a patch job on a bicycle and I was rubbin some white paint on that patch with this finger here, and I looked at the round tip o’ my finger, and there was a human face on it…then a warm feelin’ come over my body, and a voice spoke to me and said, “Paint sacred art””

Each individual art work was conceived as a divine gift, but perhaps his greatest achievement/creation was in Pennville, Georgia, his immediate environment – Paradise Garden  – You can take a video-tour of the place here, hear Howard speak of it here (and more unedited footage of the location here and here)

Curious how, here on the Centennial, his influence appears to have waned just a little bit. Norman Giradot, author of the most recent biography, Envisioning Howard Finster – The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World, addressed this earlier this year – “Whatever Happened to the Late Great Folk Artist Superstar and Cultural Hero Howard Finster?
and Philip March Jones addresses similar concerns  

Friends gathering in the Garden at this years “Finster Fest” remember him

Here’s poet Jonathan Williams’ remembrance of him 

And Allen?  –

From John Turner‘s 2009 article in Raw Vision magazine – “When Allen Ginsberg Met Howard Finster

JT: I curated a retrospective on the work of the Reverend Howard Finster for the Museum of American Folk Art in 1989. The poet Allen Ginsberg came to a pre-opening party of the exhibition for a :meet and greet” with the artist. He told me that he had been down to Paradise Garden in Georgia a few years earlier, but that Howard wasn’t giving sermons to visitors that day, He said that he enjoyed seeing the artwork in the Garden, took many photographs and bought a Finster cut-out in the gift shop. He asked me if I could introduce him to Howard and I said, “Sure, my pleasure”. He then motioned me to the side of the room, where we continued our conversation. He said, “I want you to introduce me as a homosexual. Tell him that I was born that way”. He went on to tell me that several of is friends who were familiar with Finster’s work thought that he was anti-gay and that in some of  his paintings he had written that AIDS was God’s revenge for homosexuals. Now the stage was set in a way that I hadn’t anticipated and potential trouble was brewing – it was up to Finster to give a good or bad “performance”.

I brought Allen up to the table where Howard was signing exhibition posters and motioned to him that I wanted him to meet someone. I knew Howard well enough by then (having written a biography on him) to know that he was impressed by celebrities (from wrestlers to politicians) even if he didn’t know who they were.

So I said, “Howard, this is a famous poet. He writes poetry, like you do. His name is Allen Ginsberg. He is a homosexual. He was born that way”. Howard turned his head away very slowly and paused for what seemed an eternity and then looked directly at Gimsberg and said, “What is, is”.
A smile came over Ginsberg’s face and he said, “I’m glad to make your acquaintance. Can I take a few pictures of you?”

A while later I took a cab with Ginsberg over to the Paine-Webber building and gave him a tour of the exhibition.

Sculpture in Paradise Garden – Photograph(s) by Allen Ginsberg © Estate of Allen Ginsberg

AG: “I think Finster is a poet; Why not? Bob Dylan thinks of himself as a poet primarily, more than that as a musician. Finster writes verses and there are inspired moments in the verses. There are moments when you get “genius” phrasing that is extraordinary. For example, the phrasing on his one particular tower (“Castle of Words”) has  “..the door to the other world is to step through your shadow”. That is somewhat Blake-ian”

“It is always laboring to read through any of his paintings or the books he has written. He doesn’t edit. Maybe someone needs to make a printed edition of Finster’s writings, like Blake’s, with rge “genius” just in boldface so that people can scan.”

“His writing is very repetitive and primitive in the sense of the religious message. I find his constant fundamentalist Christian core a little bit repulsive and obnoxious, even provincial for a man of such scope and energy. I don’t myself follow the Western notion of  a monistic reference point to the universe. So that is a bit of puzzlement to me how the grander scope of his visionary insight became solidified to the more limited notion of  Christ, Heaven and Hell.
Because there are so many vast religions, including Buddhism, which he apparently admires, which don’t require that conceptualities [sic] and solidification. The Hebrews used to say, “You can’t make an image of the divinity. You can’t reduce it to a word, because no image or word can displace the event of the universe.”

“Finster also has this evasive “above the battle” insight that you might find in Gregory Corso, or (Pablo) Picasso. He obviously has seen something and understands something, but when it is spelled out in certain detail politically, morally and ethically, you are not certain where he stands.

I thought that was a very tolerant answer for someone who reviles sodom in his art. There was also a certain capacity for “negative capability” there (what (John Keats) called the ability to hold contradictory ideas in mind, “without an irritable reaching out after fact and reason”.

“His misuse of certain words and mis-spellings is very charming – dyslexic. It gives additional insight and that insight is from his own brainpan rather than imitative from other people or ideas in books. From that you get the impression of raw thought.

(William) Blake successfully combines word and image. So does Adolf Wölfli. I’m a photographer and I write long -like captions on my photographs, so I’m interested in the conjunction of word and image. All through China and Japan there were calligraphers and ink brush geniuses would write long and short poems accompanied by landscape paintings. Many of his drawings, such as the partition of his skull (“My Brain Is Like A Wire House”) are parallel to thetantric arts, which delineate the and even explain them. Some of his work even reminds me of acupuncture charts.

His paintings are fantastic. There is a certain amount of eidetic trickery, that is to say, seeing faces in clouds. It is very conscious and has a sort of confidence, like Blake had with those imaginative projections. They are in a sense as real as any other “takes” on the appearance of the phenomenal world. Blake also believed that the human imagination was one of the major elements of human form. Blake had it divided into body, feelings, art, intellect, and imagination.
Imagination is the great loophole, which will deliver people from being , like Albert) Einstein Edward Teller. It can also deliver mankind from its muscle-bound materiality and hyper-sentamentalist love. Howard believes in his own imagination and now the question is, “to what extent does he actually find himself surrounded by three or four dimensional worlds when he opens and closes his eyes”?  I don’t know.

I had the experience of having visionary transport and even hearing voices myself. Those experiences were certainly crucial experiences in my life. So I don’t doubt that they have the dimension of other phenomena. On the other hand, there is an old Buddhist phrase, “If you see something powerful, don’t cling to it. If you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it.”
Emptiness is the grand palace. There is no Heaven and Hell, Howard seems to be clinging to his visions, so there is an element of the shadow of evil. There is always this little question of Finster, “Is he nuts? Is he another neurotic genius or is he a supreme visionary?” I would have to say that he is a supreme neurotic genius, which isn’t so bad.
Howard is able to communicate the energy of living in the world with an unobstructed imagination. Certainly the exuberant beauty of his work is moving, like (William) Blake’s, who says, “Exuberance is beauty.”

Allen Ginsberg and Howard Finster – Photo by William Oppenheimer, courtesy Ginsberg Collection

One comment

  1. Yes, but does / did AG ever see the light the shining light that Finster most obviously embraced.

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