03/13/2014 10:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Visions Become Reality at Paradise Garden in Georgia

Written by Carolyn Brackett, Senior Field Officer

Howard Finster is one of the best known folk artists of the 20th century, creating more than 47,000 works which are exhibited in places like the High Museum in Atlanta and are in demand by collectors.

During Howard Finster's lifetime, a continual stream of people came to the place he called Paradise Garden to see the works that emerged from the artist's visions.

"That's what kept people coming here. Finster was always working on it," says Jordan Poole, executive director of Paradise Garden.

Today, the full-scale restoration that is underway is having the same effect, drawing an increasing number of residents and visitors to experience this unique destination and to become involved in the site's preservation.

"We have had lots of support for our work days with people coming to help with things like cleaning, clearing the site, and digging canals," Poole says. "And we have seen a big increase in visitation since we started tracking in June of 2011 with people coming from here in the county and from all over the country and internationally." The success of this effort led by the Paradise Garden Foundation has the potential to significantly impact Chattooga County, one of the most economically distressed counties in the state of Georgia.

This building was often used as a workshop by Finster whose creativity extended to paintings on the outside walls.

When Howard Finster bought the four-acre property near Summerville, Ga. in 1961, he probably would not have guessed that the works he created here would make him one of the most well-known folk artists of the 20th century. After retiring from more than 25 years as a Baptist preacher, Finster devoted his time to creating art, using items he collected from all over the county -- everything from bicycles to jewelry to shoes in his creations. As Poole puts it, "He was recycling before recycling was cool."

In 1976, Finster experienced a vision: While painting a bicycle, he saw a human face in a drop of paint on his finger and heard a voice telling him to paint sacred art. Finster believed that God had told him to make 5,000 paintings to spread the gospel.

Although he completed that number by 1985, Finster kept working, reaching 46,000 paintings by the time of his death in 2001. His paintings interpreted a wide range of people, places, and issues -- from Elvis Presley, George Washington, and John the Baptist, to aliens from outer space and visions of heaven and hell.

In addition to paintings, Finster transformed Paradise Garden into a maze of buildings (including the five-story World Folk Art Church), sculptures (including a bicycle tower), and walkways imbedded with colorful mosaic pieces. Throughout the site, Finster posted signs with Biblical texts and his own interpretive writings about Biblical events and prophecies.

Finster enjoyed collecting cast-off objects from through his community of Summerville and creating unique pieces of art.

Although Finster gained national recognition by the 1970s -- appearing on television, creating album covers for the rock bands R.E.M. and Talking Heads, and having his work shown at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta -- Paradise Garden fell into disrepair after his death in 2001. In 2010, the site was placed on the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation's Places in Peril listing.

Increasing appreciation for Finster's legacy and awareness of the site's fragile condition spurred the Chattooga County government to action. The county obtained a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and raised additional funds locally to purchase the property from its owners (a nonprofit organization started by Finster's daughter) and to develop a site restoration and management plan. By January 2012, the Paradise Garden Foundation was formed and was awarded a 50-year lease by the county to manage the property.

As Paradise Garden's restoration continues, visitors are coming to enjoy tours and to learn about Finster's artistic creations.

Since then, work has been underway on all fronts from restoration of the property to new tours and educational programs to new and expanded events and even an artist-in-residence program. Milestones include:

  • Paradise Garden was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Visitation continues to increase. From June through December 2012, there were 1,249 visitors. From January through October, the site welcomed 3,639 visitors.
  • A new visitor center was constructed and opened in the fall of 2013.
  • In 2014, the site will host "Inspired Georgia: 28 Works from Georgia's State Art Collection" which includes works by Howard Finster and was developed by the Georgia Council of the Arts in partnership with the Georgia Tourism Division and Georgia Humanities Council.

Equally as important as becoming a major destination for visitors is for Paradise Garden to be an integral part of the community.

"We are having a lot of community events," Poole says. "We want to spark the creativity that is here in Summerville. And we want every county school student to come here. We want students to know about Howard and to understand that even though they may live in an economically depressed county, they can look at Howard's example and see that if you have passion about your work you can make your own mark."

Poole sees the future of Paradise Garden as carrying on the legacy of Howard Finster -- a legacy of welcoming everyone who comes here, giving them a chance to be not just a spectator but a part of whatever is happening at the moment and to leave feeling changed by the experience.

"We are using the site as Howard intended," Poole says. "Our goal is to offer the arts for all ages. Howard Finster started his visionary work at the age of 59, so people can start art at any age. That