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Home turned into museum honors folk artist

It's easy to miss the tin-roofed, red and white house along the winding streets of this hilly little town. But not for long.
Howard Finster
Folk artist Howard Finster's World's Folk Art Church is shown in his Paradise Gardens in Pennville, Ga. The church, where he held hundreds of weddings and other events has been renovated into a museum and gallery.Gene Blythe / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's easy to miss the tin-roofed, red and white house along the winding streets of this hilly little town.

But not for long.

The place where bicycle repairman Howard Finster had his vision from God to paint the Gospel opened this fall as a museum honoring a man considered to be a grandfather of contemporary folk art. Finster, who died in 2001 at age 84, began his art revolution in the basement, eventually producing 48,000 pieces: Intricate, brightly colored paintings with Bible verses, quirky wooden statues and sculptures made from other people's trash.

"Howard is why everyone else gets to be a folk artist," said David Leonardis, a Chicago gallery owner and longtime friend of Finster's who renovated the ramshackle house into a museum and gallery. "Howard Finster helped me so much, and helped others so much. This is the least I can do for him."

The house was severely run down in 2005 when Leonardis bought it in a foreclosure sale for $1,479.

Family members say they are glad the house was saved.

"I think it's great," said Finster's grandson Allen Wilson, who lives next door. "David owns two art galleries in Chicago. He can make it without this. This is something he really wants to do."

Leonardis spent $35,000 of his own money and is borrowing another $20,000 to finish the project.

Wander past the new shiny section into the back rooms, still under renovation, and you'll find the small touches that made the house Finster's.

There are the six rooms he built himself — all without a level, so floors and walls don't line up quite right — onto what was once a three-room store. The white handmade cabinets with pink flowers still hang in the back room.

The door frames in the basement still have hand-painted numbers marking off each art piece he produced there. When the artist reached number 666 in October 1977, he made a note on the door frame.

The bicycle parts, old keys and toy figurines he used in many of his larger sculpture pieces still hang from the walls.

Renovating the house was an "archaeological dig," Leonardis said.

From the high back porch you can peer into Paradise Gardens, which Finster started in 1961 and which eventually became his folk art headquarters.

The garden is owned by Paradise Gardens Park and Museum. The nonprofit was formed to manage the four-acre plot, which is overgrown with vines and weeds and includes structures that are nearly beyond repair.

The organization has raised $20,000 to renovate the garden, including $6,000 used to shore up the World's Folk Art Church. The chapel, consisting of circular tiers designed to resemble a wedding cake, had been in danger of collapsing. Finster, who was a preacher, conducted hundreds of weddings there.

Tommy Littleton, a Birmingham minister and chairman of Paradise Gardens Park and Museum, estimates it will take $350,000 to get the garden back into shape.

"We're making every effort we can," the Birmingham minister said. "Unfortunately, it's so competitive that it's hard to get funding."

The garden, which draws art lovers from around the world, has hints of its former life. The carefully placed mosaic Biblical messages are still in the sidewalks.

The paintings along each building are faded but still have the iconic look of Finster's primitive figures. The concrete statues include the marbles, plates, toys, machine parts and other trinkets that Finster placed in them.

"It makes us feel bad" to see the garden in disrepair, said Gladys Vines, Finster's 68-year-old daughter. "The park looks worse every time we go down there."

Finster, who was a bicycle repairman as well as a preacher, began creating what he called "sacred art" in 1976 after a vision appeared to him in a smudge of bicycle paint on one of his fingertips. His art, which featured everything from ants to Elvis, gained national fame after Athens-based rock band R.E.M. filmed a video in his outdoor garden in 1983.

Finster painted the covers of albums for R.E.M., The Talking Heads and other artists, and soon his art became ubiquitous.

Works that Finster once sold for $35 now go for $1,000, Leonardis said.

In 2004, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta acquired several large pieces from Paradise Gardens as well as some of Finster's better known paintings and sculptures.

Leonardis plans to make the museum into a bed-and-breakfast-style artist retreat, perhaps with a small cafe. For now, the museum is a place where Finster fans can buy his art and see a few of his things, including paint-splattered clothing and an old juice bottle full of glitter used in his art.

Visitors who need overnight lodging often stay at Dillard's Bed & Breakfast in Summerville, whose owner is thrilled about the museum opening. "It's extremely good for the community here," said Mike Dillard. "It's going to be a tremendous asset to our county."