Today I finally got Keith out of Sugar Valley for a day trip – what used to be called “taking a drive.” Keith is a Homebody with a capitol ‘H’, but it was a beautiful day and our work was caught up. He loves to drive, so we decided to head west toward Alabama, stay on the back roads, and see what we could find.
We headed up Highway 156, through the beautiful farmland of Gordon and Floyd counties, then onto Highway 27 to Summerville. Getting away from the interstate was relaxing. As we got into the little town of Summerville, I saw a sign for Paradise Gardens and I said, “I want to go there.” Keith is usually a destination driver, meaning he has a destination in mind, and he wants to get there, but today we were not in a rush, so we started looking for the place. I knew that it was something to do with the folk artist and preacher Howard Finster, but beyond that I did not know what to expect.
What we found was a remarkable conglomeration of art and inspiration combined with every imaginable thing that goes through a house and workshop over a 50 year period, all dedicated to bringing lost souls to God. From a young age Finster was committed to following God, preaching at churches in the area while working at different jobs and fixing bicyles. He started clearing out a marshy area below his house in the 1960’s to build his Paradise Garden. He filled it with mosaic sidwalks of broken pieces of pottery, knives and forks, mirrors and glass, and built sculptures inspired by his visions from God. The Garden kept growing with numerous buildings, and eventually a church that he added onto and called the World Folk Art Church. Nothing was considered “trash”, and was incorporated into his vision for the place.
One day when he was 59, he was painting a bike for a poor child when he looked at a dab of paint on his finger and saw God telling him to start painting 5000 pieces of sacred art. For the next 25 years, until his death in 2001, he painted over 46,000 pieces of art, continued to work on the multiple buildings and sculptures in his Paradise Gardens, and became a celebrity.
So much about the garden and Finster’s life touched me. His complete belief that God was calling him to paint for Him, especially at age 59, inspires me to continue to strive for what God would have me do. He did not appear to worry much about what others thought – the objects and buildings in the garden are done how he felt they should be done, not by someone’s idea of how they should look. His artwork was his way of evangelizing, and throughout his paintings and garden are Bible verses and Finster’s own succinct quotes. His sincerity caused him to be taken seriously instead of seen as a fool.
I have spent so much time in my life second guessing God. What’s He trying to say to me? Which direction does He want me to go? Howard Finster could never have imagined when he accepted God’s call to paint sacred art that he would someday lecture to college students (including at my alma mater of Wake Forest University), be on the Johnny Carson show, have rock bands like REM come to his garden, or have his pieces on display at the Smithsonian. He would never have imagined the thousands of people who have been moved in some way by his work. One of my favorite verses, Ephesians 3:21, says, “Now to the one who is able to do beyond all measure more than all that we ask or think, according to the power that is at work in us.” Who knows what God could do if we abandoned ourselves to God’s power in the way Howard Finster did?
Part of a quote by him on the front of the tour booklet reads:
“My Garden is a way for me to get my messages out all over the world. And that’s my responsibility. Someday, sometime, people on this planet are going to realize they need what Howard Finster’s got, whether it’s religion, whether it’s art, or whether it’s building a Garden..”
I can’t think of much that can’t be solved by religion, art or a garden!
If you live in the Northwest Georgia area, take an afternoon and visit the Gardens, especially if you have children. Every inch is covered in something unexpected, old tools and Indian heads, bicycle parts and dolls, put together with lushly growing flowers and vegetables. If you keep your mind and heart open, you will find God in the middle of it.