By Howard Pousner
Paradise Gardens, the late Howard Finster’s visionary art environment in northwest Georgia, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Pennville garden was purchased late last year by Chattooga County, and supporters say the the historic register designation will aid fund-raising to continue restoration efforts on the 4-acre plot.
Paradise Gardens will be reopened for tours during Finster Fest, held at downtown Summerville’s Dowdy Park on May 5 and 6. Info: www.paradisegardenfoundation.org.
More details below in the press release from the Georgia Department of Natural Resorces’ Historic Preservation Division:
Paradise Gardens Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Paradise Gardens, located at 84 Knox Street in Pennville, Chattooga County, Georgia, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 27, 2012. The property was listed at the national level of significance because it is an exceptional and largely intact example of a 20th-century visionary art environment. Visionary artists often work on a large scale in an attempt to transform the environment into an alternate world or to transcend the physical world with alternate visions of reality. The Paradise Gardens Museum sponsored the nomination and a consultant prepared the nomination materials.
Howard Finster (1915-2001) is among the most significant artists in Georgia history. He was born in 1915 in Valley Head, Alabama, where he received a sixth-grade education, and where, at age 13, he “got saved.” Finster, while often working multiple jobs, began preaching in 1932. In Trion, Georgia, Finster began to garden, eventually “aimin’ to get me one of ever’thing in the world that’d ever been invented.” In 1961 Finster purchased a small lot in Pennville, Georgia, where his family could live and he could build a new and larger garden. Between 1961 and 1991, Finster repaired bicycles, preached, and acquired adjoining property, moving his studio and family residence several times. The artist reshaped the contours of his property by draining and filling low-lying areas. He altered existing buildings, added new ones, and built new walls, pathways, and freestanding garden structures.
Finster’s work changed dramatically in January 1976 when he received a vision that commanded him to “paint sacred art.” From 1976 until his death in 2001, Finster devoted his life to painting Biblical scenes, sometimes incorporating written messages, intended to inspire viewers to seek out God’s eternal love and salvation. Among his largest paintings are the 1985 Biblical-themed Ninevite and Highway to Heaven murals. The significance of Finster’s work was recognized in 1976 in the exhibition and film Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1770-1976. By the 1980s, his work was displayed in numerous exhibitions, including the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as well as in LIFE magazine. Finster appeared in the R.E.M. music video for Radio Free Europe, which was filmed at Paradise Gardens, and painted album covers for R.E.M. and Talking Heads. His work, which is widely collected, is displayed in the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
Paradise Gardens is located in a residential neighborhood in the town of Pennville in northwest Georgia. Finster created this outdoor museum and garden to display his art and assorted collections. The property includes several houses, studios, and a chapel where the artist lived, worked, and conducted religious ceremonies. The buildings are interconnected by a series of covered bridges, concrete walkways, and concrete sculptures. Finster began the gardens along Knox Street in an area he called “The Plant Farm Museum” in the early 1960s. He dug ditches to drain the low-lying land and then built concrete walls studded with shards of colored glass, discarded bottles, ceramics, bottle caps, and other found objects.
Finster, who was always adding to and altering his garden, purchased a one-story, frame church on Rena Street in 1981 and, without blueprints, added a three-tiered tower with a colonnade gallery from which visitors could view the gardens. The World’s Folk Art Church is the largest, and among Finster’s most significant works, in the garden. The gardens also include the Barn (1964); the Bicycle Repair Shop (1967); Coke Bottle Pump House (1978); and the Bicycle Tower, built in 1977 from discarded bike parts that Finster welded together to form a 20-foot-tall tower. Finster, who moved to nearby Summerville in 1991, returned to Paradise Gardens to build the wheelchair ramp in 1992 and the entrance to the World’s Folk Art Chapel in 1994. Howard Finster died in Rome, Georgia at age 84 on October 22, 2001. One of the former family homes at 84 Knox Street, Summerville now serves as a visitor center.
The National Register of Historic Places is our country’s official list of historic buildings, structures, sites, objects, and districts worthy of preservation. The National Register provides formal recognition of a property’s architectural, historical or archaeological significance. It also identifies historic properties for planning purposes and insures that these properties will be considered in the planning of state or federally assisted projects. National Register listing encourages preservation of historic properties through public awareness, federal and state tax incentives, and grants. Listing in the National Register does not place obligations or restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition of private property.