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Stranger in paradise
Rev. Howard Finster's visionary art takes flight at Jepson Center

"One day I was workin' on a patch job on a bicycle, and I was rubbin' some white paint on that patch with this finger here, and I looked at the round tip o' my finger, and there was a human face on it... then a warm feelin' come over my body, and a voice spoke to me and said, 'Paint sacred art.'" -- The Rev. Howard Finster

VISIONARY ARTIST. Man of God. Friend to some of rock’s most seminal musicians. Master showman and raconteur in the grand Southern tradition.

All those things and more — the late folk artist Howard Finster was an American original and one of the South’s great contributions to the nation’s cultural fabric.

He was also, as we say down here, a hoot.

“Howard was such an outsized personality. He was so dynamic,” says Harry DeLorme, Senior Curator of Education for the Telfair Museums.

“He sold himself very well. There was that famous appearance on the old Tonight Show when he basically upstaged Johnny Carson,” DeLorme says. “He was a ham, but very magnetic and personal. It came from years of preaching.”

Finster’s outsized personality is evident in his now–iconic folk or “outsider” art paintings, some of which have graced albums by artists such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads.

You can see many examples of Finster’s original work in the new show “Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster” at the Telfair’s Jepson Center of Arts beginning this Thursday, when the show opens with Southern-themed refreshments and a screening of the rock doc Athens GA Inside/Out.

The show is traveling across the U.S, but ironically Savannah is the only venue in the Alabama native’s adoptive state of Georgia to host the show.

“Finster’s one of the best known self–taught artists in U.S. history,” says DeLorme. “It’s a great opportunity for us and for Savannah to see a large body of his work in one place.”

DeLorme adds that the Telfair hosting the show is even more appropriate given that “we were the venue for one of the first shows that really brought his work out there to the public.”

It went like this: Way back in 1976 the Telfair was one of three venues in the state to host the show “Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1770–1976,” the first to feature works by Finster.

“It was really the first traveling museum exhibition to put Finster’s work out there in the public sphere,” says DeLorme. “It wasn’t long after he had his famous vision. That show happened in 1976, the same year he began to produce paintings. So the Telfair was really his beginning.”

While that 1976 vision was crucial to Finster’s development, it wasn’t his first call to serve God. He had actually been preaching the gospel from the age of 16 in Alabama.

By the 1960s he had retired from preaching and moved to his new home outside Summerville, devoting most of his time to the “Plant Farm Museum,” an outdoor installation.

It wasn’t long after Finster’s ‘76 epiphany, however, before collectors and galleries in art markets throughout the country began taking this gregarious yet self–deprecating eccentric seriously as an American artist.

The Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York was a key early advocate. Finster would go on to exhibit at such prestigious museums as Atlanta’s High Museum, which still maintains a permanent exhibit of his work.

Finster died in 2001 after having an impact not only on American folk art, but world pop culture as well. The crux of his fame came with his association with the burgeoning music scene in Athens, Ga.

Though Finster himself lived in Summerville in the northwest part of Georgia, by the early 1980s his work and eccentric personality made inroads into the eclectic culture springing up in the university town on the other side of Atlanta.

“By the early ‘80s in Athens you had this interesting convergence of contemporary artists and art students and folk art and music all in the same place,” says DeLorme.

These interests vectored through the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia, which had students who also played in bands such as R.E.M. and Pylon.

“There was always a big interest in folk art at the UGA art department,” explains DeLorme. “They played a big role in Finster’s career. Professors there were very supportive — such as Art Rosenbaum, who’s done so much to preserve folk music in particular, and actually won a Grammy for his compilations of field recordings.”

1983 was a huge year for Finster. R.E.M. filmed part of the video for their breakthrough college radio single “Radio Free Europe” in Finster’s art garden at Summerville (by then renamed Paradise Garden).

That was also the year Finster appeared on The Tonight Show, he and his banjo essentially hijacking the show from a bemused Carson.

Finster would go on to contribute artwork for the cover of R.E.M.’s second full–length album, Reckoning, and Talking Heads’ Little Creatures.

As a graduate himself of the Dodd School at UGA, DeLorme says Finster and Georgia folk art have great personal resonance as well.

“Folk art and self–taught art was something that was very much part of my experience as an art student,” he says. “Folk musicians sometimes performed and modeled for us.”

While not all the work in the show is religious in nature, the bulk is.

“It’s part of the culture of the South. A lot of self–taught artists came up in very religious environments,” DeLorme says. “It’s part of who they are, and it’s expressed in their work.”

While admiring the work of these self–taught visionary artists, it’s always important to remember that what may look like commercialism was also intended for another purpose.

“Finster wanted to preach through his work,” DeLorme says. “He was always talking about how many more people he could reach by putting his work on the cover of popular albums.”

Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Rev. Howard Finster

When: Opening Thur. June 28, 5:30 p.m., Athens, GA. Inside/Out screening 7 p.m.

Where: Jepson Center, 208 W. York St.

Cost: Opening and film $5 for non–members, free to Telfair members. Admission includes refreshments, live banjo, movie and exhibit.