Off the Cuff: Folk Artist Howard Finster

Charles Shepard, President and CEO

Throughout my career I’ve been blessed with friendships with some of the most interesting people in the art world.  One of the most fascinating was the self-taught folk artist Howard Finster. I was a myopic art historian in training when I first saw Howard’s work in an art magazine in the library of the Clark Art Institute.  I had no experience with “outsider art” and thought the idea that someone self-taught could actually make art was ridiculous.  Several years later, however, while spending a long weekend in Chicago browsing through the galleries of River North, I called on art dealer Carl Hammer and discovered that his entire gallery was devoted primarily to these “outsiders.” My education about folk- or outsider- art began that afternoon as Carl walked me through his back room pulling painting after painting from the racks and telling me stories about each of his artists. Howard Finster was clearly a favorite.  “Don’t call him a folk artist, though, Carl cautioned, “Howard tells me he’s a visionary.”

A week or so later, back behind my desk at the University of Maine Museum of Art, I had an urge to speak with this visionary artist to hear his story directly.  Carl was kind enough to get me Howard’s telephone number and to let him know I would be calling.

Not knowing what to expect, I dialed the number.  The self-proclaimed “Man of Visions” was ready for me: as soon as I told him my name, he was quick to let me know that “when Jesus called his disciples, he called on fishermen, he didn’t call nobody from a university.”  I figured that the smartest reply was a simple “Amen.”  Howard cackled loudly at that and started telling me his story.

He grew up in Alabama on the family farm as one of 13 children, several of whom died before he entered his teens.

Spiritually inclined, Howard claims to have had his first vision at three years old, when he saw his recently deceased sister, Abbie Rose, walking down out of the sky wearing a white gown. She approached him directly and told him, “Howard, you’re gonna be a man of visions.” Although he was still too young to understand exactly what she meant, Howard took her words to heart and began to find how they might, eventually, shape his life.

While attending a Baptist Revival shortly after that, he experienced a powerful spirit that called to him and he was “born again.”  At the tender age of 14, Howard felt that the Lord needed him and he began to preach.

After a few years, he gradually began to doubt that preaching from the pulpit was truly his calling.  It was at that moment that he had a vision that he could preach to the world in another way – through art.

He set to work and painted verse-filled pictures day and night. Then, the Lord told him to go further and “build a paradise decorated with the stories of the Bible.”  So Howard transformed his junk-filled backyard into Paradise Garden. As instructed, Howard filled the Garden with vividly-colored apocalyptic works of angels and scriptures and admonitions to repent that were nailed to every building and tree.

Howard’s goal was to use both his art and Paradise Garden to send bold messages that would encourage all spiritual people to help change the world and get it back in shape. “Everyone’s welcome to my garden and my stories and everything. I was sent here to give my visions, and I have many of them,” he said.

Howard and I talked for over an hour that day which I interpreted as his forgiving me for my being an academic. After that first call, we talked throughout the year.

Howard’s popularity was growing by leaps and bounds. He was delighted that his dedication to preaching through his art and expanding his Paradise Garden just happened to coincide with the art world’s newly awakened interest in folk art of all forms. He was always amazed by his own popularity. “People come here and buy the paint rags out of my studio!” he once said, clearly astonished.

He was also curious and more than a little suspicious about these “art world” people.  Ever eager for a broader audience for his visions, he soon basked in being at the center of the world’s attention. Bands like REM asked him to create their album covers, and he was invited to appear on the Tonight Show and MTV, which spread his message well beyond the art world.  Young curators and collectors from around the country stood in line beside rock stars, actors, and MTV film crews for a chance to meet with Howard in his Garden.

To all, Howard tried to clarify the point of his art making: “As for me, I’m just passin’ through this planet…Howard Finster has not come here to leave mansions and millions. I’m just here to leave pictures of all the creations of God I can make with the people. ”

That said, Howard’s prices for his work grew as rapidly as his popularity.  And our conversations soon became less philosophical and more strategic: which galleries could sell his work for higher prices and what was the best way to get his work into museums. Of course this was all guised in the notion that these strategies would spread his visions.

But one afternoon I began to see a different side of Howard the Art Star. To introduce his work to more mainstream audiences, I suggested that we put an exhibition together that could tour to museums all across the country. Howard liked the plan but had an important question: when would he get paid for all the art in the exhibition? He was thinking of approximately $200,000 to start with, and maybe a little more as the “tour” unfolded. Taken aback, I did my best to explain that museums don’t quite work that way. Instead, we borrowed the artwork from the artist and returned it to the artist after the exhibition or tour ended. Howard’s generally good nature disappeared. He became convinced that he was being abused: you museum folks are using my artwork like a side-show to sell more tickets and get rich. I tried to persuade him that university museums don’t even sell tickets and, moreover, if they did, the revenue would never even repay the thousands of dollars the museums spent to put the exhibition together. Howard got so mad he couldn’t talk to me. He put his son on the line. Unable to see beyond his father’s world, his son, Roy, tried to convince me that I wasn’t thinking straight. We ended the conversation promising that we would all think it over and talk again. But we never did.

After a long day in the studio 92 year-old Howard quietly passed away on October 23, 2001, just one day before his 66th wedding anniversary, leaving his wife Pauline, four children, and fifteen grandchildren to maintain Paradise Garden and carry his visions to the next generation.

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