Revered Folk Artist Howard Finster Dies

The Rev. Howard Finster -- a folk artist who created sermons in paint that were featured on the covers of rock albums and in galleries worldwide -- died yesterday (Oct. 22) of congestive heart failure

The Rev. Howard Finster -- a folk artist who created sermons in paint that were featured on the covers of rock albums and in galleries worldwide -- died yesterday (Oct. 22) of congestive heart failure. He was 84.

Finster died at Redmond Regional Medical Center in Rome, Ga., Erwin-Pettit Funeral Home of nearby Summerville said.

Finster, a Baptist minister since his teens, began his art career in his late 40s, creating works that ranged from wooden cutouts to paintings to assemblages, many of which he adorned with messages like "Hell is a hell of a place" in block letters. He often used pop culture icons such as the Coca-Cola bottle, Cadillacs, and Elvis Presley in his work.

"When Christ called his disciples, he called fishermen, he didn't call nobody from a qualified university," Finster said in a 1990 magazine interview. "He used common people to reveal parables. That's what I do. I use Elvis because I'm a fan of Elvis. Elvis was a great guy. By using him I get people's attention and they read my messages."

Finster was considered a pioneer among self-taught artists, advancing the "outsider" movement with his unique personality, unflagging salesmanship and resolute work ethic. Such artists work "outside" the aesthetic of formal art training. "He was an introduction to this art for a lot of individuals who had never heard of it," said Marcia Weber, a gallery owner in Montgomery, Ala., who has handled several Finster paintings. "He broke ground."

Finster's work, consistently imbued with evangelistic themes that exhort the viewer to repent and accept Christ, became popular in the early 1980s in New York art galleries. "He took the word of God and did it entirely in his own way, this eccentric, unconventional manner," said Lynne Spriggs, folk art curator at Atlanta's High Museum of Art, which holds the world's largest collection of Finster works. "He was a tireless artist and a great teacher."

Finster's widest exposure may have been from music cover art. The Talking Heads, a group made up of former art students, commissioned Finster to create the art for the cover of its 1985 set "Little Creatures." In 1988, Georgia-based R.E.M. asked Finster to make the cover for its second album, "Reckoning."

Finster was also known for his three-acre Paradise Garden, which he described as a "folk art haven," built in 1961 on filled swampland behind his home in Pennville in northwest Georgia. Featuring mosaic cement paths, a giant cement boot, the Tomb of the Unknown Body, and Finster's folk art chapel, it was the site of a video R.E.M. filmed for the song "Radio Free Europe." For years, he spent Sunday afternoons at the garden greeting visitors. He later moved to nearby Summerville, and Paradise Garden is now largely owned by the High Museum of Art.

Finster was born on a small farm in DeKalb County, Ala., on Dec. 2, 1916, and became a Baptist preacher at age 16. For more than three decades, he traveled Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee preaching at tent revivals and supplementing his income with odd jobs, including plumbing and bicycle repair.

In recent years, most of Finster's work was advertised on his Web site, with the artist himself working at an almost assembly line pace. "We can call it commercialism, but his aim is that his art serves a didactic function: to spread the word," said Lee Kogan, a friend of Finster's and director of special projects at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. "His art serves God. He's interested in getting this message out."

Survivors include his wife, Pauline Freeman Finster; four daughters; a son; 15 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

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