English Professor Greg Bottoms delves into the lives and works of evangelical outsider artists in The Colorful Apocalypse, published in 2007 by the University of Chicago Press. The following excerpt features Chapter 1 of the volume’s first notebook, “Visions from Paradise.”
Missionary Mary had a vision of my father,” says Beverly Finster. She is the youngest of Howard Finster’s five children and the manager of Paradise Gardens, his outsider art environment in Pennville, Georgia, which he spent several decades constructing and reconstructing, plastering with biblical quotes, sermons, and apocalyptic warnings.
We’re driving in my minivan. Morning sun glints off the damp asphalt, turns puddles alongside the highway into moving pools of sky-colored light.
“A vision?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. “She saw him last night in a dream.”
Beverly is in her mid-forties, a feisty, business-minded blond woman who looks quite a bit like her father, with her small eyes and downward-sloping nose. She incorporated Finster Folk Art, Inc., as it is currently known, and added an s to Paradise Garden, so it is now Paradise Gardens, a “park” that charges admission ($5 for adults; $3 for seniors and children; free for children under five). She is a painter herself, and recently finished one of her father’s final works, undoubtedly dropping its monetary value exponentially. She also runs her own business, Finster Framing, in a town just over the Alabama border.
She seems to think I’m a newspaper journalist, will produce a short article, publicity for the struggling Gardens, though I told her I was an English professor, interested in making notes for a book about Christian fundamentalism and the idea of visionary outsider art. One of the first things she asked me when I arrived, with an air of impatience, if not outright surliness about the whole enterprise of the interview, was, “Okay, what are your questions? Gotsomequestions? Askmeyourquestions.” I can’t blame her, though. People have been badgering her about her father since she was a teenager.
Aimed south on U.S. 27, we’re off to Rome, Georgia, on a warm, sunny Saturday to rent a sprayer to repaint the bottom floor of the World’s Folk Art Church, Finster’s biggest and most ambitious functional sculpture. With the grant-writing help of Victor Faccinto, an art professor at Wake Forest University, Finster used a National Endowment for the Arts grant in the early ’80s to purchase an old church abutting his land from a pastor named Billy Wright. Shortly after this, following visions of “beautiful mansions with big domes” that “made a negative in [his] brain,” he added several floors and a steeple of wood and sheet metal and bits of tin and broken glass and remade the building into not so much a work of art as a monument to his waking dreams, an assortment of refuse and warped planking transformed into something of obsessive detail and intricacy. The World’s Folk Art Church (sometimes called “the chapel”) will be the centerpiece for the festivities at Paradise Gardens tomorrow, December 2, 2001, Howard Finster’s� posthumous eighty-fifth birthday and memorial.
Missionary Mary’s vision, Beverly continues, was of Finster in the sky, in the bright light of heaven. He had a “pretty smile” on his face and was wearing a black suit, which, Beverly says, was the one he was buried in.
“Missionary Mary could not have known about that suit,” she says, excited. “When I told her, I says ‘Mary,’”—long pause for effect—“that’s the suit he went to see God in.’ And she says, ‘Oh, you’re kidding me! Beverly, you’ve got to be kidding me!’ And I says, ‘No, Mary, I ain’t kidding.’”
Beverly smiles and huffs through her nose, looking at me, as if to let the supernatural weight of her comments settle around us.
The timeworn southern spine of the Appalachians is visible to our west. Hum of tires. Clear sky, barren trees. Brown and gold hills all around us like a bunched rug.
“So Mary Proctor was a friend?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. Do you know about her? She’s a great painter herself. You ought to go meet her. You’d definitely learn something about what a Christian is. Yes, you sure would. She paints old doors, an artist down in Florida who got real close with my father. She wanted to come tomorrow but can’t make it. I guess you could say she’s a lady prophetess, just a real powerful Christian woman.
“Mary’s mother put her in a ditch when she was born, and her grandmother said, ‘I know you’ve had that baby, now you go get her.’ The mother brought her to the grandmother, and the grandmother raised her. Several years ago the grandmother was burnt up in her house with other family members. At that point, Missionary Mary started doing her painting and her artwork, and a lot of it is based on the teachings of her grandmother. She’s had lots of shows. She’s gotten herself right famous.”
“That’s horrible,” I say.
“I mean the fire. The fire is horrible.”
“Yeah. Bad.” Beverly stares out into the bright, speeding distance. “Lot of people died in that house.”
Beverly speaks like this often—dramatizing exchanges, conversation veering toward the tragic and metaphysical. Earlier she told me, without a trace of irony or even figurative thinking, that she was waiting for her father to return from heaven and give her guidance on how to run Paradise Gardens (fiduciary, business-plan sort of guidance). Evidently money is a big issue; I get the feeling that finances are dire, but Beverly doesn’t want to talk about it, so I don’t push her. It’s clear, though, that she actually expects her father to be sitting in a chair in a room one day, when the time is right. He’ll smile, and then get down to business with the advice.
We look out the windows for Eddie Rents, a big, red warehouse that should be coming up on the left.
When I spoke to Beverly a few days ago by phone, she said I could come down and “get a story,” but that she would be busy and I might have to pitch in. Now I’m chauffeuring her around northwest Georgia, looking for a paint sprayer, which is harder to find than one might imagine, even in this rural place.
As we ride along the empty highway, land rising and falling under us like swells in a deep, calm sea, I think of why I’ve really come—my idea, my project. I’ve read about the money squabbles between Finster’s five children, which the author and outsider-art scholar Tom Patterson described in Raw Vision, a by-turn fascinating, informative, and amateurish art journal devoted to “outsider art, art brut, and folk art,” as “not unlike those that often surround lottery winners.” I have of course read criticism of Finster’s “commercialization,” of how he became a dupe of the art world, and of his later work as being hackneyed (which strikes me as neither here nor there, because how do you judge something by the conventional critical assessments of art when it exists, first, as a stream-of-consciousness ministry/service announcement for your soul?). I’ve heard that the Gardens are sinking into ever-faster rot (true). But I—how can I possibly says this?—I’m here for something harder to define, for a better understanding of the intentions of the man I saw up on that art-house screen fourteen years ago, a man whose strange biography and body of work have been celebrated and mythologized, denigrated and criticized, written about and presented in such a way as to mystify what, I think, might otherwise be obvious and clear, simple and simply human. I’ve read the biographies and autobiography, and now I want to hear stories from those who knew Finster, want to understand, get inside, as much as that is possible, the mentality, the fiery Christian psychology, that produced, by best estimates, more than forty-six thousand works of art.
Or so I’m thinking as the white dashes arrow by.
The art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who writes as well as anyone about art, dismissed Finster’s work in the Village Voice in 1982, said he could “see no proper use for it.” And certainly, if one comes at the reverend’s art—or most outsider art, for that matter—armed with a Greenbergian formalist’s eye, an aesthete’s sense that a painting is first and foremost a painting, one may indeed dismiss it quickly. But outsider art is not fuelled by aesthetic concerns, at least not primarily. It is more often fuelled by passion, troubled psychology, extreme ideology, faith, despair, and the desperate need to be heard and seen that comes with cultural marginalization and mental unease. Schjeldahl, in his review, went on to say that it was clear that Finster’s mind was “a prison.” Maybe here is one question at the heart of my endeavor, which, admittedly, I will probably not be able to answer. If your mind is a prison—and one could argue, as Schjeldahl suggested, that every mind is a prison—can artistic expression…can religion…can religious or spiritual artistic expression be a key to get you out of your suffering?
Beverly clears her throat, sits quietly—a stranger to me, and me to her.
Missionary Mary Proctor’s Southern gothic tale of woe is no more severe than Finster’s, who lost several of his siblings as a child, including a sister to rabies from a dog bite and an older, mentally retarded brother who died an agonizing death after catching on fire in the family home. In fact, Finster’s first vision, documented and recounted until it now approaches the level of parable among his fans and followers, occurred at the time of his sister’s death when he was only three years old. She rose up above a “mater patch” on their family farm in Valley Head, Alabama, and then proceeded to glow and walk up concrete steps toward heaven.
Later Finster began having visions and dreams that he could fly. He had new powers—of metaphysical sight and flight—and suddenly death and sadness, which were everywhere, had no dominion over him. He was magic, of God, untouchable.
I know about visions and how the mind can become, in Schjeldahl’s words, “a prison.” I grew up with a schizophrenic brother who had a penchant for heavy metal, karate, snakes and spiders, scaring women in pizza parlors, and mediocre pencil drawings of fantastic creatures; a brother who turned to Christian fundamentalist thinking and made similar “visionary” claims—about God in a window, about voices under his bed, about an angel in his room and receiving direct messages from scripture; a brother who then attempted suicide a couple of times, lived homeless in central Florida, admitted to a homosexual rape and murder that he did not commit, and finally tried to murder my mother, father, and younger brother in an act of bungled arson. And my experiences with my mentally ill brother—which spawned this curiosity about “ecstasy” and “insanity,” which have indeed forced me to “renounce the convenience of terminal truths,” as Foucault put it—are the origin of my interest in this type of art from the societal margins, the history of which I began to study almost by accident while writing a short book about the tragedy and spiritual dimensions of my brother’s illness.
Books in this field led to other books, and soon I had files and folders, notes and fragments, around the house. In every account of a true outsider, I saw, I think, my brother and myself, the schizophrenic and the writer. There it was: the existential moment of loss, the “dark night of the soul,” and the struggle, through expression, to get back from the abyss, out of the prison, to live comfortably inside your own skin and circumstances. The schizophrenic—trust me on this one—gets stuck in dark fantasy, shunned from the world by the ill workings of his own mind; the so-called healthy artist will often have to turn away from the world, live in fantasy and the artifice holding that fantasy up. And the same desperation that drives people to art drives people to criminal acts, I sometimes think. They can both be beyond the bounds of the rational.
The only “crazy” people I’ve heard about (Finster possibly included here) who have found a tolerable way to get through life without swallowing endless bottles of tranquilizers and psychotropic drugs have done so by devoting themselves to some form of creative expression that addresses their aches and longings. They get to a place where the strictures of mainstream society, of civilization as it is currently formed, weigh less heavily upon them.
Looking over all that has been produced about Finster—the numerous books, magazine and newspaper articles, documentaries, sound recordings, CD-ROMS, and video tapes—one could argue, as with most outsider artists, that the interest in his work over the last thirty years stemmed from his stranger-than-fiction biography and personal eccentricities—the post-modern obsession with oddity and the Other at the heart of some outsider art collection—which obviously places him beyond psychological and social norms, whatever those might be, and which possibly began in the aftermath of trauma.
I think of all the famous stories: the paint smudge on his finger in 1976 commanding him to paint “sacred art”; the fifteen-foot giant at his gate; his working day and night, driven by visions of Jesus and Elvis and Hank Williams and George Washington, drinking pots and pots of coffee, barely napping, and never taking his shoes off “for months”; or the one about him shouting for everyone’s attention at an art show in Georgia and then preaching of how all of man’s inventions were underground, placed there by God, and we just dug them up (a notion reminiscent of aboriginal “dreaming” and songlines, only with Ford trucks, Fender guitars, and Elvis’s sequined pants instead of rocks and rivers); or how he said—and he said things like this every day—“Howard Finster is from God. Howard Finster has a gift from God. Like I tell everyone, I do not have ideas, I have visions.” Sounds like something my brother might have said before being asked to leave the school parking lot or the church social.
Beverly and I continue on in our awkward silence, and a pang of sadness moves through me as I envision, rightly or wrongly, a roomful of art browsers and collectors—people, in my mind, who can discuss surrealism, Guy Debord and Situationist Internationale, the heyday of CBGB’s in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and Harry Smith’s folk archives with equal ease—eating expensive cheese and sipping fine French wine, at once celebrating and patronizing an old man who had a fifth-grade education and misspelled many of the biblical messages in his paintings.
As we approach the Eddie Rents warehouse on the left, I finally almost generate a question. I ask Beverly if she thinks her father’s creativity, like that of Missionary Mary’s, came from pain, was sort of, you know…I’m not finding the right words.
“Well,” she says,” yeah, he did have lots of loss. There was thirteen children in his family, and a lot of them died before they ever got grown. Only a very few of them ever got grown. I guess everybody’s life influences what they do. I reckon everyone’s filled to here”—hand held horizontal at the top of her head—“with reasons.”
As we head back to Paradise Gardens with the sprayer on a faux-Mexican blanket in the back of my minivan (I left a baby seat on the Gardens’ porch so I could fold the seats down), Beverly tells me to take a left off of U.S. 27, onto a barely two-lane road winding past a few small houses and long stretches of scrub-pine and cedar woods. Light blinks through the high trees, spreading a shadow mosaic along the pavement. We begin driving (I will later think) into one of her dreams.
“Junk collector—that’s what they called him when I was a kid,” Beverly says. “A boy once said I made roach cakes because we didn’t have no money. He was just being ugly, though. Some people’s just ugly in their heart. Everybody thought my father was crazy, just poor old crazy bumpkins, you know, but he didn’t care. He was busy working and preaching. He showed everybody, though. God sent him here for just a short time to do His work. He got himself real famous. He never did a thing wrong in my eyes.”
“I’d go to the dump and collect all kinds of beautiful things,” Finster once said. “When people’s loved ones died, they would clean up a house. I would go there and get the stuff they throwed away—old trunks, boxes with jewelry in it, all kind of stuff.”
Beverly tells me that she thinks her father was “exploited.” I don’t understand. I’m not sure whether she is referring to money or the media or the small network of outsider art collectors and museums, but I know that it sometimes hurt her when filmmakers and journalists, art students and hippies and intellectuals, buyers and browsers and gawkers, used to come around and ogle the old man, America’s most famous outsider artist, like a sideshow attraction or a comic performer.
Some people dug what he was saying, no doubt, but others simply came for the novelty, the strangeness. They thought him a fool, a Christian weirdo, some kind of backwoods jester. But he was her father, and she loved him more than anything, and she wants to protect him—from me, from whomever—even, or perhaps especially, in death. Beverly understands that with the celebration of his work and life also came the stigma of his difference, his “deviance,” his “outsider” status. She wouldn’t put it like this—in the sometimes arid language of the professoriate, I suppose—but she definitely gets it just the same.
The road curves back to Silver Hill Baptist Church, a small, white building atop a hill of brown grass, surrounded by the arthritic trees of late fall. This was the last church Finster officially pastored.
A large, brown pickup truck with a winch mounted on the back is parked in the grass, near a half dozen or so graves. Several workers stand around. They straighten up as we approach, look our way as gravel crunches under the van’s tires.
“Oh,” Beverly says.
I park. We get out.
And there it is—Finster’s grave, the earth grassless in the size and shape of a coffin.
A tall, bearded man in a NASCAR hat and brown overalls is brushing off the tombstone with a dry, fine paintbrush. They’ve just finished putting it in the ground.
Beverly greets the workmen—she seems to know them, talks to one about a child, school, something—then walks around, looking at the large stone.
The hill is steep, and from my vantage below on the road she looks, momentarily, as if she is leaning down toward her father’s grave to keep her balance.
I walk up the hill.
One of the men drinks from a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup. Another puts a large plug of tobacco into his cheek. Another sits squeakily on the tailgate of the truck.
I feel awkward, intrusive, stuck inside a moment belonging to someone else. I never met the man. I can’t properly define for Beverly—I’m still working it out for myself—what I’m doing here, hanging around, asking questions, tape recording, and now I’m standing near his fresh grave. The remaining two workers by the headstone back away out of respect, go to the truck with the others. I step back, too. Beverly stands there alone: a child over the dirt-covered coffin of her father.
Finster’s tombstone is a long, horizontal rectangle spread across the width of two graves, one reserved for Beverly’s mother, Pauline, who still lives in the Finster home in nearby Summerville. There are a couple of two-foot high marble vases, one on each side of the stone. On the left of the stone it says, william howard dec. 2, 1916-oct. 22, 2001. �
The message in the middle reads, precious lord take my hand, and two hands, one from heaven and one from earth, meet. At the base of the grave a plaque states, simply, husband and father.
I write all of this in my notebook and draw a sketch of the church, the hill, the tombstone, a stick figure representing Beverly leaning forward in an exaggerated way. I think Finster himself would have chosen for an epitaph visionary artist or God’s messenger or stranger from another world. His family, or at least Beverly, saw him otherwise. It occurs to me for the first time, as I look over the jottings in my notebook, that my father died on October 21, eight years ago, and I suddenly remember, standing in slanted sunlight, that my schizophrenic brother, on October 22, Finster’s death day, made a request through corrections officials who called me directly to leave the psychiatric wing of a prison to attend my father’s funeral, even though less than a year before he had attempted to murder him. My brother loved my father, missed him so much, was so, so sorry, please let me come home. I was having late-night negotiations with a mental breakdown at the time. Had the phone in my hand turned into a snake it wouldn’t have surprised me.
Maybe this is my dream, then, or our dreams have gotten tangled.
Back on the road to Paradise Gardens, which needs a lot of work before the birthday celebration tomorrow, Beverly calls her mother on a small, silver cell phone to tell her how beautiful the stone is, which no one in the family has seen.
She says, “Okay unhuh yeah course right. I know.”
Long break in her talking as she listens.
“Love you, too,” she says. Then she clicks off the phone.
There is a pause—travel, the engine—and then she starts weeping. It comes quietly at first, as I look straight ahead, then in wet, ragged gasps.
I want to reach down and turn off the recorder. But I fear that will make the moment more awkward than it already is.
Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue.