Artists In Paradise: Reflecting On Howard Finster’s Legacy

Paradise Garden is a 2.5-acre art compound created by Howard Finster.
Paradise Garden is a 2.5-acre art compound created by Howard Finster.
Credit Gabbie Watts / WABE


Much can be said of Howard Finster: he had holy visions throughout his life. He preached the word of God, until he found that painting it was more effective at spreading the message. He made over 46,000 pieces of art, arguably becoming the most well-known self-taught artist of the 20th century.

His most awe-inspiring work, Paradise Garden in Pennville, Georgia, is a compound of his artistic and holy vision. From the church that he moved onto the property to the pathway encrusted with objects to a painted Cadillac, every inch has something to find.

Paradise Garden was a bit of a pilgrimage site for artists when Finster was alive, and at last weekend’s Finster Fest, many artists felt like it was a homecoming. In the Garden, they shared some of their memories of Finster.

Folk artist Peter Loose:

“I had a dog come into my life, a little performer dog who could play piano, and Howard thought that was so great that he pretty much was best friends with my dog. So, Bongo and Howard were really tight, and even in the last years of Howard’s life, we would drive hours to get him really better by having a Bongo visit. The last one I remember … I watched Howard talk to my dog for a straight half-hour conversation.”

Folk artist Grace Kelly Laster:

“[When we finally met him], he said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ and he told his daughter to take down our number so that we could do a workshop together … it was overwhelming to meet your hero, and then he puts you to work.”

John Paul Daniel, also known as Bebo:

“Howard chewed tobacco, and he chewed this really nasty stuff, King B Twist, the nastiest of the nasty. I would bring it to him, and we were walking around in the Garden, and he said, ‘Do you want some?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, what does it do?’ And, he said, ‘You take about an inch, and put it underneath your tongue, and in three minutes, you aren’t alone.’ That’s just so Howard.”

Musician and instrument builder James Floyd:

“I wandered down to Paradise Garden when I was a young buck because a friend of mine knew Howard Finster. We brought our guitars, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Do you know “I saw the light”?’ And I said, yes, and he said, ‘Will you play it for me,’ and he sang it. It was incredible, but then we played it like six more times because he kept wanting to sing it more.”