Alternative rock icons R.E.M. Alabama CCM folkie Pierce Pettis. New Wave giants Talking Heads. Orange County soul-rockers Adam Again.
Artistically and spiritually, there’s not a lot to link these artists together. The one factor they have in common, aside from profession and nationality? They are among the musicians who came to the late Rev. Howard Finster of Summerville, Georgia, for album artwork and inspiration.
Born in December 1916 and ascended to Heaven in October 2001, Howard Finster was one of the most unique American artists of the 20th century. A central figure in the movement called “outsider art”, representing self-taught artists with few or no connections to the bigger artistic world. A fiery backwoods Baptist preacher and visionary, deeply spiritual in his life and his artistic conception, Finster first burst into the national public eye through his unlikely connections to the world of college rock.
He was born in Valley Head, Alabama, one of fourteen kids, and claimed to have had his first vision at age three, when he saw his late sister emerge from the sky in a white gown and tell him he would be a visionary. His education ended in the sixth grade, when he went to work to help support the family. In 1930 Finster received the Holy Spirit at a Baptist revival, and three years later he became a passionate preacher of the Gospel. He pastured at churches in Rock Bridge and Fort Payne, Alabama, and took up art in the 1940s as an avocation. When he wasn’t pastoring, he worked as a bicycle repairman.
In about 1948 he bought a plot of land in Trion, Georgia, near the northeast border of Alabama, and began to build what he termed a “garden park museum”. Finster’s outlandish vision for the property included a duck pond, a pigeon roost, a museum of every historical invention he could get his hands on, and models of various homes and churches. While he never achieved the full measure of his initial vision, Finster built and added elements to the property until he completely ran out of space.
Above: a well-worn sign at the site of Finster’s original Paradise Garden in Trion, Ga.
In 1961 Finster moved to Pennville, now Summerville, and began constructing a four-acre Plant Farm Museum inspired by God’s natural creations. Reminiscent of L.A.’s Watts Towers in its use of debris, from broken glass and mirrors to wires and stone, even concrete reliefs, the Plant Farm Museum included constructs like the Machine Gun Nest, Bicycle Tower, Bible House and a five-story-tall Folk Art Chapel. The entire property was eventually riddled with Bible-verse signs, structures, cars, sculptures, and his signature paintings: no visual perspective and every square millimeter of surface covered with his distinctive, self-taught art. Among the frequent subjects were Elvis Presley, angels, George Washington, and Coke bottles, for which his passion resembled Andy Warhol’s for shoes and Campbell’s Soup cans. A poem posted at the compound, later redubbed Paradise Garden, simply states Finster’s recycled-art aesthetic:
I took the pieces you threw away
and put them together by night and day,
washed by rain and dried by sun
a million pieces all in one.
Above: Howard Finster’s Trumpeting Angel”. Note that the multicolored robe is completely covered in text.
While his Christian faith was always evident in much of Finster’s art, it was not until 1976 that his art evolved into a deeper method of ministry. Guided by a vision of a face on his fingertip, he began creating his unique form of sacred art almost exclusively. Finster painted primitive images of angels, people and buildings, captioning them with Biblical quotes or sermon snippets. Besides flat, rectangular works, he would often paint three-dimensional sculptures assembled from cut wood. As before, he completely covered the surface of his pieces with paint and text.
R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe first came across Finster’s work on a visit to a museum. In 1984 Stipe asked the artist to collaborate with him on cover art for the band’s album Reckoning (I.R.S. Records). The cover, shown above, bears much of Finster’s cartoonishness, but no scriptural references, which was highly unusual by the mid-80s. A snake in tones of blue, green and purple (with the song titles at intervals) weaves over a black-and-white background of buildings, faces and other doodles. While it was not really representative of Finster’s usual work, the artist got a lot of publicity as Stipe and his bandmates touted Finster’s art in multiple interviews. The band filmed their video for “Radio Free Europe” at Paradise Garden, and Finster himself briefly appeared in the video for “Shiny Happy People”. Finster appeared on The Tonight Show in 1984, regaling Johnny Carson with his folky humor, backwoods tales and banjo music:
The following year, 1985, Finster was contacted by David Byrne of Talking Heads for a similar commission. Byrne had started the band while a student at Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s and had long been interested in American folk art. In Finster he saw the ideal American visionary artist, combining a nationalist spirit with religious fervor and bold use of color. The cover that Finster created for Talking Heads’ Little Creatures (Sire Records, 1985, below) was a surrealist wonderland featuring portraits of each band member amidst smiling clouds and black mountains, towers, churches, and Biblical notions like “A new world is coming down from on high.” In the center of it all was a portrait of David Byrne, clad in tighty-whities and black shoes, holding the globe upon his back like Atlas. The art seemed well-suited to oddball, almost otherworldly songs like “And She Was”, “Perfect World” and “Road to Nowhere”. Rolling Stone Magazine named it the top album cover of the year.
1987 saw the emergence of Adam Again, an Orange County band fronted by singer, songwriter and keyboardist Gene Eugene. The band’s music fused the soul of Marvin Gaye, the funk of George Clinton, and the spiritual outlook of O.C.’s bright new Christian music scene. Their debut album, In a New World of Time (Brainstorm), boasted a cover by Howard Finster (below) that was somewhat reminiscent of the Little Creatures cover. The smiling clouds, black mountains and voluminous text were still dominant, and the faces of the band members were placed on the central mountain amidst a blue and green sea of scanty trees. It didn’t quite match the electronic funk of the band’s music, but it certainly connected Adam Again with the wider community of secular musicians. And, once again, it brought Finster further into the public eye, this time to a more specifically Christian audience.
Not long before his death, Finster completed the cover for State of Grace (Compass Records, 2001, below) by Pierce Pettis. It depicts a colorful village scene with the caption, “A land where peace is forever in his promised land. No one shall be evil. There in the last days, whoesoever call (sic) upon the name shall be saved in the name of Jesus.” The bucolic imagery, more brightly colored than any of Finster’s past album covers, reflected the folky comfort of Pettis’ God-glorifying songs.
In one of his early visions, God told Howard Finster to paint five thousand pictures in order to spread the Gospel through his art. Numbering every one of his works, Finster reached that goal by Christmas of 1985. By the time of his death from congestive heart failure, Finster was estimated to have made 46,000 individual artworks. Beginning with his first public exhibition in 1976, Finster presented his art to the world through innumerable TV features and museum shows. Among the highlights were four pieces crafted for the Library of Congress, participation in the Venice Bienniale, painting an eight-foot Coke bottle for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the inclusion of portions of Paradise Garden in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art collections. Finster was honored in a number of songs, including R.E.M.’s “Maps and Legends” and Vigilantes of Love’s “The Glory and the Dream”.
Above: Howard Finster’s Baby Elvis (1988) – unknown whether it was inspired by The 77s’ song “Mary and the Baby Elvis”
Howard Finster online: http://www.finster.com
Paradise Gardens website: http://finsters.ipower.com/index.html
To view past profiles on Artists Work B.e.n.c.h, click below:
Dr. He Qi
Laura Kramer (Psalm 23 Jewelry)
Chris SchlarbJohn Newton
Vincent van Gogh