The Divine Madness of Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens
If it seems like I have been posting much more sporadically this week, that’s because it was my birthday yesterday and my family took a trip to Huntsville, Alabama with my in-laws to visit the Space Museum so I took this week half-off. Gotta re-charge the old batteries once in a while and this website is a passion project as exhausting as it is satisfying.
So it was great to take the boys to Alabama for a quick Spring Break jaunt while my wife and four year old son Declan were on vacation. The whole trip was a delight, a much-needed break from the old daily grind but the highlight was undoubtedly a magical hour or two the wife, the in-laws and the boys spent at Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens.
The name Howard Finster may or may not ring a ball but chances are good you’re familiar with at least some of his work. The obsessive, transcendently primitive folk-art cover of the Talking Heads’ Small Creatures? That’s Howard Finster. R.E.M’s “Radio Free Europe?” Filmed at the Paradise Gardens back in 1983. The cover of R.E.M’s Reckoning? A collaboration between Michael Stipe and Howard Finster, who at that point was a 68 year old retired preacher and handyman in addition to being one of the country’s leading folk/outsider artists.
Visiting Paradise Gardens, a magical wonderland in an aggressively unassuming Georgia neighborhood, is like wandering through the mind and the imagination of the man who created it through furious labor, unwavering faith, boundless ambition and a desperate need to share the wonders of faith and grace with the world.
Paradise Gardens takes the form of a series of shacks and pathways and bridges and gardens overflowing with rusted metal arranged in artful heaps and child-like drawings overflowing with words, words of prophecy, words of faith, words of madness.
The late artist was almost like a hoarder in his stubborn unwillingness to let go of what 99 percent of the world would consider garbage. Only instead of hoarding cats or old newspapers what Howard Finster hoarded in Paradise Gardens was beauty. It was faith. It was all consuming spiritual belief at its most epic and transformative and irresistible.
This strange, beautiful man created heaven in Georgia. He created a shrine unlike any other, a church unlike any other, a sacred place unlike any other. You don’t just feel his presence wandering through his paradise; you feel it to an overwhelming degree. It’s overpowering. In death, FInster has attained immortality, eternal life.
When the Bill Mahers of the world smugly cast judgment on all religion, people of faith and the religious impulse as the asinine delusions of superstitious fools too weak-minded to be able to accept the brutal truth of God’s non-existence it pisses me off in no small part because when I think of people of faith I think of people like Larry Norman and Howard Finster and Johnny Cash as well as the usual suspects.
I will be the first to admit that religion, particularly of the organized Christian variety, has become harder to defend since Trump’s election. The evangelical community’s unwavering support of President Grab Em by the Pussy has really exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of so much of the Christian right, who seem to be fine with the living personification of sin locking children in cages and spreading hate and ugliness as long as he helps them realize their legislative and social agenda.
Yes, religion and contrasting conceptions of God can cause people to do horrible things. It can inspire misguided zealots to open fire in churches or mosques. It can lead people to believe that slavery is moral and homosexuality the devil’s handiwork. It can lead to wars and hatred and misery. But it can also lead to great art and great architecture and social progress. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were men of faith, after all, not just Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson.
Beautiful things can happen when people express their faith with the intensity and personality and spiritual fever that Finster did. Paradise Gardens is a beautiful place and a sacred place and a testament to all that you can accomplish with faith, cracked genius and an unparalleled work ethic.
Even if you’re an atheist, or a Jew like myself, Paradise Gardens is nevertheless a holy place in an impure world.
I make my living largely through crowd-funding so if you would be kind enough to consider pledging over at https://patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace it would be swell.