The Love for Outsider Artists
I come here for one thing, and that is, I have visions of other worlds. I have visions that’s unimaginable. I have visions that I can’t even tell people. And I try, the best thing I can, to draw my visions.
For those of you who are not familiar with outsider art, it is a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture. I first became interested in it through my “Great-Uncle Shorty” who lived in Zahl, North Dakota. He assembled the craziest sculptures created from found objects. These sculptures included animal horns, tractor seats, kewpie dolls, discarded pot and pans and other assorted objects. They were created on the top of fence posts that defined his farmyard. Adult members of the family would shake their heads at his creations but as a child I was fascinated.
It took me 50 years to put a label on what Uncle Shorty was doing. Many, many years later I was able to work with Judy Onofrio (a more intentional “outsider” artist) on a curriculum writing project using her found object mosaic sculptures. Along with writing curriculum for young students about outsider art, the writing team and I also drove through Wisconsin visiting outsider art sites. We had a ball! No wonder that in our travel this week to Florida we detoured and came to a screeching halt in out-of-the-way Summerville, Georgia. This is the location for Howard Finster’s “Paradise Garden.” What an amazing place! I guess what goes around comes around!
This brings me around to Howard Finster, (December 2, 1916 – October 22, 2001). Howard was an American outsider artist and Baptist minister from Georgia. He created “Paradise Garden” on swampy land behind his house in the early 1960s. Composed of walkways and constructions made from cast-off pieces of technology, the Garden assembles individual monuments into an all-encompassing “Memorial to God.” Much of the building material in the garden was accumulated from Finster’s television and bicycle repair businesses and his twenty-one other trades.
The Reverend Howard Finster was also a prolific artist, painting over 46,000 paintings in his life. Because Finster realized that his congregation did not remember his sermons even minutes after he had finished, he published religious songs and poetry in local newspapers in the 1930s and hosted a radio prayer show in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He claims God charged him to illustrate his religious visions in 1976 when “A warm feeling came over me to paint sacred art.” I’d rather put one sermon out in art than fifty out of my mouth. The main thing about my art is to have a message. Preaching does very little good. But I find by doing it in art, a man will see it, and the message will be printed on his brain cells.” (Howard Finster, “Man of Visions,” Folklife Annual, 1985)
Finster began churning out thousands of sermon-laden artworks with subjects ranging from historical characters and popular culture icons like Elvis Presley to evangelistic fantasy landscapes and futuristic cities. Most works are meticulously over-laid in Finster’s own hand-lettered words and Biblical verse.
To spread his vision to a wider audience, Finster designed record album covers for rock groups such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads, later earning him Record Album Cover of the year by Rolling Stone Magazine. Interviews, films, and his famous appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson further advanced his evangelical message.
There is a lot on the internet about this amazing artist. I am so grateful the the body of work from this “Grandfather of Folk Art” is accessible and can be enjoyed by many.
Thanks for reading!