Howard Finster, Appalachian Artist
Howard Finster, Appalachian artist, preacher, and prophet, created folk art that is strange and powerful. Bits of colorful glass and pebbles are inlaid in concrete forms. Bible verses, crudely lettered in black cover various surfaces. The letters curve around the surfaces of gourds and bottles, they scrawl crookedly across wooden panels cut into the shapes of angels. The work is stark and primitive and downright bizarre.
My first introduction to the outsider art of Howard Finster ~ and my only introduction to the man himself ~ was at LaGrange College during the early 1980ís. Mr. Finster was invited to speak at forum. Finster was a crazy bundle of energy: combination revival-tent preacher, snake-oil salesman and vaudeville showman. He was an old-timey evangelist, like something straight out of a Flannery OíConnor short story. There was no denying the manís charisma. He was fascinating to hear. Watching him, one got butterflies in the stomach, a blend of disbelief, excitement and almost of fear ~ the "I-might-have-to-eat-a-live-chicken" brand of fear, to borrow a quote from Steel Magnolias. Once during Finsterís performance, while caught up in the zeal of the moment, he jumped up from the floor onto a tabletop; and I mean a classroom table, not a coffee table. Finster, at that time, must have been at least 65.
As an evangelist, Finster was the real thing. He fully believed the old-timey brand of gospel that he preached. I have no doubt of it. He took all of that wild, zealous energy and translated into a vast body of artwork, much of which comprised Paradise Garden, his small property near Summerville, Georgia. His work traveled far beyond Summerville, though. Beyond that, his work traveled from town to town, state to state. Exhibits of his work appeared in small, local guilds and major museums. One such exhibit came to the Creative Arts Guild in Dalton, Georgia, and there, I had another opportunity to see a large collection of his work. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta has a large segment of its folk-art exhibit devoted to Finster. The Finster exhibit is part of the museumís permanent collection and is arranged in a way that tries to keep the work in context, as it must have been displayed at Paradise Garden.
Is it art? Does it matter? Certainly it is marketable as such. In folk-art circles, some of the larger and rarer Finsters are becoming collectibles, and bring a small fortune now that he is deceased. His smaller pieces used to be quite affordable at $30 or $40, though they, too, have probably sky-rocketed since his death. Art, as defined in the 20th-21st century, comprises a rather broad category of stuff: abstract paintings and sculptures, photo-realism, installation works, earthworks, performance artÖ basically, if itís tagged as "art," itís art. Finster himself probably did not intend his work as "art" ~ certainly not in the highbrow sense of the word. In that respect, as folk art, his work is authentic. Finster was not the stereotypical artist. Yes, he took commissions. There was the R.E.M. album cover and the appearance on The Tonight Show. But Finsterís greatest joy must not have been in the doing of art for artís sake. Rather, his pieces were a way to reach people with his evangelical message. In that respect, his work, as folk art, is authentic. Finster was a prophet of sorts. Finsterís work began with a vision that told him to paint.
Howard Finsterís lifeís work was not art; it was salvation ~ the saving of the human soul. Art, to Finster, was just another medium for bringing the word of Jesus Christ to a hungry public. One of my personal favorite pieces by Howard Finster is his Absolut Vodka piece. An ad campaign for Absolut Vodka, featuring pieces by established artists, ran in Art News (and possibly other art magazines) in the 1980Ďs. Each ad featured a representation of a bottle of Absolut Vodka in an artistís known style; hence, the Howard Finster piece. In typical Finster fashion, the artist covered the bottle in Bible verses. Why miss a chance to "reach" a sinner, as presumably a drinker of vodka must necessarily be, to an old-timey preacher like Finster. Of course, this is a personal assumption on my part ~ that with the Absolut Vodka piece, the tent-preacher-turned-artist was proselytizing: preaching to the crowd; playing his audience.
I also enjoy the irony of his "Elvis at 3 is a angel to me" images. A typical Elvis is painted on a two-foot-tall board or panel, cut into the shape of a miniature Elvis with wings. Elvisí face, in these pieces, generally fails to achieve the angelic beauty that Finster probably saw in the face of the youthful musician. Instead, it often resembles a 40-plus-year old, shoe-polish-haired, side burned Elvis impersonator, complete with a (painted) polyester suit. Aestheticism has left the building. The little-man Elvis figure has a big, black-bordered white circle painted on its stomach, that sports painted lines for clock hands that point to twelve and three (three oíclock). Finsterís titles and themes are rarely in doubt; they are usually painted all over a piece, in crude, black, first-gradey block letters, complete with misspellings. Elvis was a recurrent theme of the artistís, as were angels.
Speaking of angels, my favorite Finster pieces for pure folk beauty is his flying angel ~ an annunciation piece, to utilize formal art-speak. These pieces are large, flat angel cut-outs, somewhat resembling a traditional Christmas-card angel (as attempted by a child artist). The angel, hung by wire or hanging on a nail, floats horizontally in profile and usually has a trumpet held up to its mouth. The robe is painted all over in Bible verses. A large Finster angel, back in the 1980ís, would have sold for less than $500.
If the purpose of art is to enrich the soul, then Finsterís work is art to me. It achieves a peculiar, quirky sort of beauty. It truly is folk art. My life is richer for having seen it.