From the pulpit to the palette: Paradise Gardens and the legacy of Howard Finster

The house at 200 Lewis Street in Summerville, Ga. fits in with all of the other frame houses on the street. But inside and behind that house is the story of a man who followed his own vision and in doing so, became something of a folk hero.

Howard Finster”s idea for Paradise Gardens came when he “saw” a “face” in some white paint that had gotten on his finger. It’s a much-told story that he shared with photographer Ed Thompson when he had the opportunity to photograph Finster. That “face” told him to go “paint sacred art.”

Finster was a bicycle mechanic with a sixth-grade education. He preached at various churches before he shifted his ministry from the pulpit to the palette. He was already well-known when I first heard of him.

In the 90’s country music group Blackhawk wrote a song about Howard Finster and made a video that included pictures of Finster and Paradise Gardens. The lyrics inspired me and it became one of my favorite songs, particularly this passage:

“Your blue might be gray, your less might be more
Your window to the world might be your own front door
Your shiniest day might come in the middle of the night
That’s just about right”

I was living about 40 miles from Summerville at the time and wanted to meet Finster.

I never had the chance. So when Thompson posted on Facebook about his meeting with the folk artist, I had to talk to ask him what he was like. Thompson formerly worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His work has spanned the famous–like South African golfer Gary Player–to front porch family shoots during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thompson was hired to shoot a cover photo of Finster for Southern Magazine. He found him painting in a dark room with one light bulb.

“He needed a shave and probably a bath and clean clothes,” Thompson recalled.

The two had a long conversation. And during that conversation, Finster was sure to tell Thompson about the plan for salvation. That told Thompson that Paradise Gardens “wasn’t just art to him.”

“It truly was a ministry.”

One of the many Bible verses and messages you will find at Paradise Gardens.

Paradise Gardens is a reflection of Finster’s ministry and life. Bible verses and inspirational messages are painted everywhere. A message on the back of an old camper reads, “Time waits for no one. Take time to be holy. I never seen a person I didn’t love.”

Some things will catch you by surprise, like a coffin in the outdoor meditation chapel. But mostly, Paradise Gardens makes you appreciate the sometimes cluttered but always authentic visions Finster had. The cliche “the pictures don’t do it justice” really applies here.

Finster died in 2001 but his legacy is continuing and it stretches past Lewis Street. Today, museums all across the United States have a piece painted by Finster in their collection. A photo of one of Finster’s favorite subjects, a Coca-Cola bottle, hangs in the High Museum of Art. And 20 years after his death, many magazines and bloggers are still writing stories about him.

For Thompson, finding the perfect photo for the cover of Finster took a little convincing. Finster had a blue tuxedo made for him by his daughter. Thompson convinced him to put on the tuxedo, which he described as “electric blue, in the sunlight it was just glowing like neon.”

“I couldn’t have dreamed up a better look for him,” Thompson said. “We wandered around a little more trying to find a good place to shoot and backing away from a church, because I wanted that in the background to kind of give me a sense of place…there was a stack of lumber as I recall and on top of the lumber was a stack of broken mirrors, like big sheets of just regular mirrors. It lined up really nicely with the church….and it just framed up perfectly with the crystal blue clear sky. He put his hands upon that stack of glass and the sun kind of bounced off that mirror and just lit him in just this unreal sort of look.”

Ed Thompson’s cover photo of Howard Finster. (photo provided by Ed Thompson)

Today, the Paradise Gardens Foundation is continuing Finster’s mission. More than 25,000 people have visited since the Foundation reopened the gardens in 2012, according to their website.

Every year the Foundation hosts Finster Fest which features local artists from around the country. The event also features speakers and music. The 2021 Finster Fest is Oct. 9-10. It’s a great opportunity to support new artists and learn more about Finister’s work.

The Foundation also hosts three residences on Airbnb that you can rent. It’s a great place to spend a weekend and learn about the man of vision who created a legacy in a small Northwest Georgia town.

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