Press Clipping from the AJC

April 25, 20120 Comments

Paradise Garden’s renovation has made national news, please enjoy some of the articles that have been published.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Resurrection of Finster’s Paradise Garden  |   By Howard Pousner

PENNVILLE — The Rev. Howard Finster is still helping call the roll up yonder, but in a development virtually no one expected, his Paradise Garden is springing back to life.

Tucked away in this quiet corner of northwest Georgia, the wild 2.5-acre plot that Finster began assembling in 1961 out of an inexhaustible creative impulse and other people’s castoffs had been in a slow fade since he went to be with the angels a decade ago.  But things are suddenly moving again at the visionary art environment that many considered the greatest expression of the famed fire-and-brimstone preacher-turned-artist’s peculiar genius.
In December, Chattooga County, with $125,000 in Appalachian Regional Commission grant money and private donations, purchased the swampy parcel from a group that had struggled to maintain and keep it open. Formed in January, the nonprofit Paradise Garden Foundation Inc. signed a 50-year lease with the county and assumed day-to-day management.
This month, the garden was added to the National Register of Historic Places, an affirmation of credibility that should help make preservation grants from governmental and foundation sources flow in its direction. A site management plan that will guide what’s expected to be an extensive and expensive multiyear restoration of Finster’s fragile art environment is due in May from the Atlanta architecture firm Lord Aeck & Sargent.
But even ahead of that, work to make the property presentable for Finster Fest, the annual fiesta of self-taught art and rock music being presented next weekend, is going full tilt. One recent weekday, volunteers from Home Depot’s corporate headquarters in Cobb County were planting flowers, cleaning crusty windows and sweeping mud and leaves off walkways studded with Finster’s glistening mosaic art.

A ‘grand reopening’
It’s symbolic that blockages in the serpentine creek that lends the low-lying parcel a portion of its mystique, along with plenty of unwelcome murk, have been shoveled out and the water is flowing once again.
Paradise Garden Foundation is billing the fest, held at downtown Summerville’s Dowdy Park with free shuttles regularly delivering guests to the garden two miles away, as a “grand reopening.” In truth, the garden never officially closed, but it was open only sporadically last year, drawing 2,000 visitors.
But Chattooga County and foundation officials are counting on many times that in years to come. In fact, the garden is at the heart of a plan to boost heritage tourism to one of Georgia’s poorest counties and to help re-energize downtown Summerville’s reviving but still snoozy Main Street.
That sounds like a lot of expectation to be borne by a hand-built attraction that was showing the toll of erosion, weather and general deterioration for at least a decade before the increasingly frail Finster died at age 84 in 2001. After all, it was included on the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s Places in Peril list but two years ago.
But 32-year-old Jason Winters, the county’s sole commissioner, who grew up in the tiny Chattooga town of Lyerly and recalls visiting Paradise Garden as a youngster, said the site remains well-known across the country and is capable of inspiring new generations.
“So many small communities would love to have the promotional tool that we’ve got,” he said of Paradise Garden. “We’re just now beginning to be able to tap that resource.”  Winters wants to “capture” more travelers between Atlanta and Nashville, who cut through downtown Summerville on U.S. 27 to get to I-75 or I-59. He also hopes to boost overnight visitation to the area, which also boasts James H. “Sloppy” Floyd State Park and popular annual events such as autumn’s Steam Into Summerville Railroad Days.
He can already point to positive developments in response to the promise of the garden’s revival: Vision Gallery, a storefront filled with locally made art and crafts with a name inspired by Finster (who was known as the Man of Visions) opened in March downtown; and Folk America, a gallery focusing on 20th-century self-taught artists, is opening a mile north of town next weekend in time to tap into Finster Fest crowds.
Larry Schlachter, who is converting a long-empty 1935 red-brick farmhouse into the slick, dramatically lit, 1,500-square-foot gallery, said the sale of Paradise Garden to the county is what encouraged him and his wife, Jane, to proceed post-haste toward realizing a long-held dream.  “It’s the first real chance the garden has had since Howard passed,” said Schlachter, a longtime Finster friend and patron who also operates Trade Days, a twice-weekly flea market on a lot next to his new gallery where everything from live chickens to fresh produce to old Nintendo games are sold. “It was just sad. It just passed along with Howard. You know, Howard was the garden.”

Finster’s mission
Certainly, Paradise Garden was an expression of everything Finster was about. A sign he hand-lettered once greeted visitors and gave context to the overflowing eyefuls they were about to encounter: “I took the pieces you threw away — put them togather (sic) night and day. Washed by rain, dried by sun, a million pieces all in one.”
But then this self-proclaimed “second Noah,” who for decades had lived in various structures around the periphery of the property while continuing to assemble the garden, moved to what he called an “executive branch” neighborhood near downtown Summerville in the early 1990s.
With the pontiff of Paradise no longer holding court at the garden as often, at least one family member was believed to have sold off concrete sculptures, painted wood cutouts and other parts of the permanent installations behind the artist’s back.
That provoked Finster, increasingly concerned about what would happen after his death, to sell even more to Jimmy Allen, a former Atlanta “picker.” In turn, Allen dealt them to private collectors and the High Museum of Art, which crafted a permanent gallery for its major Paradise Garden acquisitions, including the concrete sculpture “The Calves and the Young Lion.”  “I’d like for Paradise Garden to live on so that people can enjoy it, but visitors have sorrow in the heart when they see it going down,” Finster lamented in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000. “It’s a hard thing to bear. … I thought it’d go on forever.”

In an effort to hold on to what remained, his daughter Beverly Finster took over management of the grounds and a gallery/gift shop perched at a different entrance, fenced the parcel and started charging admission to pay for maintenance. “It took my daddy 35 years to build this place, and it might take me 35 years to restore it,” she told the AJC in 2000.  By 2007, she’d had enough and sold Paradise Garden to the Rev. Tommy Littleton, a preacher and real estate investor from Birmingham and a board member of the nonprofit she had started.

‘The money pit’
In a recent interview, Beverly Finster described running it as an energy zapper and bank account drain. The biggest challenge, she said, was “trying to get something fixed before something else tore up. I call it the money pit.”
Littleton was challenged, as well. Seeking restoration funds, he was turned down by 35 foundations, he told The New York Times later in 2007. “That’s been one of our struggles,” he said, “to get a major entity to believe in the project and fund it.”

Paradise Garden Foundation executive director Jordan Poole, while careful to praise Littleton’s nonprofit for work that included emergency repairs to the most significant structure Finster built, the wedding cake-shaped World’s Folk Art Church, says the Alabama man and his out-of-town board were viewed as outsiders in this rural enclave.
“There was definitely some problems with getting a local buy-in because he didn’t have that local connection going,” Poole said.
Leading the new charge, Poole is a 1996 Chattooga High School graduate with two historic preservation degrees from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He has worked as restoration manager at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s house museum in Virginia, as well as for the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.
“It’s one of those things where you can talk the talk and walk the walk when you’re from a place,” said Poole, 28.
Still, one question that a lot of Finster followers have wondered since the artist’s death is how much remains at Paradise Garden worth talking about.
Jack Pyburn, the Lord Aeck & Sargent principal heading the site management plan team, estimated that less than 100 of Finster’s most notable environmental artworks have survived from as many as 500 that were displayed in the garden’s heyday.  Nonetheless, after a recent visit, High Museum of Art folk art curator Susan Crawley said, “I was pleasantly surprised to find how much of Paradise Garden is left. All the major structures are still there, as are a number
of the installation pieces.”

Paradise Garden Foundation president Janet Byington noted that Littleton passed along several hundred more items, some admittedly in far from pristine condition, now safely in a Rome storage facility, and that worthy discoveries are a frequent occurrence at the garden.  “Oh, there is so much here and we find things every single day,” said Byington, district director for U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey. “You find Howard everywhere. And with modern media today, we can re-create Howard here.”

Recapturing a spirit
Though the board does not have the Lord Aeck & Sargent plan in hand yet, that indeed seems to be part of the strategy. At the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training’s inaugural “Divine Disorder” conference held in Louisiana in February and which focused on the conservation of folk art environments, Pyburn suggested it was more important to evoke Finster’s feisty, evangelical spirit than it was to try to replace works that are unlikely to be returned.
“My feeling is the most meaningful this site will ever be is as it is today, because it’s got what’s left of Howard,” he said. “Everything else will be an intervention. … It’s about, to me, how you recapture his spirit.”
Pyburn and foundation leaders have discussed various ways to make that happen, including videos and audio in the welcome center that once served as Finster’s gallery and Smartphone QR codes at stops on tours of the grounds, providing up-to-date information on missing pieces.  Byington estimates preservation and interpretation will cost several hundred thousand dollars to start with. She said she is confident the money could be raised through additional grants and community donations.  “I think about how little money Howard had to do things here, and feel we, too, can do it with very little,” the board president said. “We’re not planning on making this into Disney World or Dollywood. We want you to come here and experience it like Howard [did] because we don’t think there’s anything like it in the South.”

NEW GALLERIES
Folk America Gallery, 12135 U.S. 27, Summerville. 706-857-8095, www.folkamerica.net.
Vision Gallery, 9974 Commerce St., Summerville. 706-266-0476, www.facebook.com/
summervillevisiongallery

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