Saving Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens

After a decade of neglect, the North Georgia folk art mecca gets the care it deserves

Jordan Poole has a vision. It involves relocating the gates of Paradise.

For a decade, the entrance to Howard Finster’s folk art mecca Paradise Gardens sat at 48 Knox St. in Pennville, Ga. A small yellow sign staked into the shoulder of U.S. Highway 27 marked the turn onto an unassuming neighborhood side street. Poole, the newly appointed executive director of the Paradise Gardens Foundation, has removed the faded sign and rerouted visitors to arrive instead at a bright red mailbox in front of the grounds’ original entrance.

“It’s so important to have a good approach. We’re taking a different route so people can see the green fields and meadows. Now you can enter into what was his studio space — the front porch where R.E.M. would come and play,” explains Poole.

A sprightly Baptist preacher, prolific self-taught artist, and self-proclaimed “man of visions,” Finster’s beautiful mind-style evangelical artworks teem with angels and demons, aliens and UFOs, and Biblical prophesies. Finster caught the attention of the mainstream in the early ’80s when he began collaborating with R.E.M. from nearby Athens. The music video for R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” was filmed on the plot of swampy Pennville land Finster bought in 1961 and drew attention to the artist/tinker’s found-object retreat. He had drained the property himself to construct his Plant Farm Museum, a tribute to the Garden of Eden that Esquire magazine later dubbed Paradise Gardens.

Since Finster’s death at 84 in 2001, the approach to maintaining the 2.5-acre property has lacked a clear vision — something the artist never suffered from: “I built that garden because I had a feeling to do it just like you have to scratch when you’re itching,” Finster told Johnny Carson in a 1983 appearance on “The Tonight Show.”

As ownership of the property shifted between family members, then to an Alabama-based nonprofit in 2005, the labyrinthine site deteriorated. Kudzu reclaimed the mosaic garden with a vengeance. Cobwebs enshrouded corners of the meditation chapel. Wasps’ nests multiplied inside the towering World’s Folk Art Chapel’s cupola.

“I tried to get some things done, but it’s a money pit is what it is,” says Beverly Finster-Guinn, the youngest of Finster’s five children. “It’s gonna take lots of money to fix that place up and for the maintenance of it. My father, he started so many things and never finished them. He just had so many ideas he couldn’t get them all done.”

After a decade of decline, Poole is leading a long overdue revitalization effort. With backing from Chattooga County and Finster’s family, the 28-year-old native of neighboring Summerville is on a mission not only to restore the fragile and crumbling visionary art site but also the economy of his hometown.

“Downtown used to be so much busier. We need to change our market of economy and get back to the mom-and-pop aspect that we lost,” says Poole. “We need to promote something that could get small businesses going, something we already have, and brand ourselves with that.”

Poole believes that something is Paradise Gardens.

The story goes that one day, Finster was fixing a bike in his repair shop when he received a divine vision telling him to make sacred art. A dollop of paint on his index finger morphed into a face to deliver the message. Finster, being a man of God and not one to take such communications lightly, affirmed his calling by ceasing the repairs and casting his tools in cement. A concrete slab embedded with his tools is now part of the High Museum’s permanent collection.

God was specific and gave Finster a quota of 5,000 works. He would create more than 46,000 in his lifetime. Of those tens of thousands of artworks, Paradise Gardens is arguably his masterpiece.

“The purpose of the gardens is to unite people with God,” says Finster-Guinn. “My father built the gardens like the prophets in the Old Testament built their temples. It was like his temple for God. He had wanted it filled with Bible scriptures and his paintings. His whole purpose, everything that he did was to point people to God.”

Mosaic walkways embedded with aphorisms snake through the yard. Cement mounds riddled with faces evoke a rural Georgia Pompeii. An elevated wheelchair ramp gallery built by Finster for one of his grandchildren teeters over the tomb of an unknown body. Sunlight pings around the garden, reflecting off of hundreds of light-catchers. Rows upon rows of bottles, doll parts, and industrial detritus dangle from the eaves of various sheds and outbuildings.

Basically, there’s a lot of stuff here, and Poole is figuring out what to do with it all. “There was a 10-year period after Finster died where family and friends were not throwing anything away,” he says. “So you have a guy who hoards and then exacerbate that with the fact that people were throwing stuff into these buildings. It was almost like we cannot do anything anywhere because we have all of this junk. So it’s been going through, and saying, ‘Well, you know this roll of rotten brown paper is not helping us any. I think we can throw this away.’”

A SCAD graduate with degrees in historic preservation, Poole’s resume includes stints at George Washington’s Virginia homestead Mount Vernon, Rhodes Hall, and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. While at the Georgia Trust in 2009, Poole lobbied and succeeded to get Paradise Gardens on its 2010 list of Places in Peril. That year, Jason Winters, also a young Chattooga County native, took office as sole commissioner of the county. Over the next two years, Poole and Winters worked with the county, Finster’s family, and the Appalachian Regional Commission to purchase Paradise Gardens.

The county received a grant from the ARC in 2010 and began a conversation with locals to promote the idea of Paradise Gardens as a heritage tourism site.

“It’s just not a popular thing in this area, to support an art site,” says Poole. “People’s concerns are more about their taxes than anything else. And for Winters to have the visionary aspect of this being important for a sustainable economy, that’s why I’m so excited that he came on board with this project.”

The community rallied and raised the remaining cash needed to buy the site: $42,000 in 30 days. In December 2011, Chattooga County bought the property for $125,000 and is developing a long-term site management plan with the help of Atlanta architecture firm Lord, Aeck & Sargent. In April, Paradise Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places — a rare feat for sites less than 50 years old.

Mondays in downtown Summerville are quiet. After lunch at Jefferson’s, nearly the only thing open that day, Poole leads the way through the once-bustling commercial district to nearby Dowdy Park. On May 5-6, Dowdy Park will host Finster Fest, a free celebration of the outsider artist’s life and work. Patterson Hood headlines a weekend of music and art that also marks the grand reopening of Paradise Gardens.

On the way to the park Poole stops at a storefront. A sign for Dippy’s Pizza & Grill is affixed above the doorway, but the inside is filled with artwork. Poole introduces Vision Gallery, a local artist co-op he helped open in March. Paintings of rural mountain landscapes and scenes of pastoral whimsy, handmade jewelry, and bronze sculptures fill the narrow gallery, which Poole says sold $3,000 worth of work in its first month.

Around the corner on a mostly deserted side street are the remnants of a hardware store that burned down 15 years ago. Only three walls remain, but a rendering for an open-air theater is propped up in the place where a window display once stood. There are drawings of tables and a platform on the far wall for performances. Poole explains that the community has started to respond to the idea that arts and culture can be economic drivers, and that getting people out into the downtown will help revitalize the financially struggling town.

“Our goal is to restore Paradise Gardens, but also to work to come up with an engine of folks to come to Summerville to spend money,” says Poole. “That’s our main focus, we want the legacy of what Howard built there to bring folks and inspire artists.”