ABOUT halfway through Paradise Garden, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills reflects on the Athens band’s early days of touring.
It was all too common for non-Southerners, seeing R.E.M. for the first time, to be flabbergasted to learn that artists and creative thinkers could emerge from the American South (“Isn’t that where hell is?” he parodies).
Throughout the film, Mills, Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls, Cindy Wilson of The B-52’s, Chris Frantz of Talking Heads, and visual artists like R. Land and Steve Penley share their encounters with preacher and artist Howard Finster, perhaps the most prolific artistic voice to come out of the South and change perceptions on religious art, folk storytellers, and what it means to create.
If you haven’t heard it, the legend goes like this: bike repairman and preacher Finster was working on an old bike when he got a dab of paint on his finger. A face appeared in the paint and spoke to him: “Paint sacred art.”
From then on, Finster, who’d never created a work of art in his life, made tens of thousands of numbered works, riddled with Bible verses and wonderful quips of his own philosophy and wisdom.
He painted on wood, telephones, Cadillacs, and anything he could find, but his greatest work was his own Paradise Garden, a Garden of Eden-inspired oasis of art and scripture.
Spread over four acres in Summerville, Georgia, the Garden featured a Bible House, Mirror House, Hubcap Tower, Bicycle Tower, Machine Gun Nest, and the iconic four-story Folk Art Chapel, all crafted by Finster. A shining example of visionary and found art, it became a mecca for Southern musicians and artists, particularly of the D.I.Y. and punk persuasion. Finster welcomed people of all walks of life to visit, and became close with many.
Creating album art for R.E.M. and Talking Heads made his pieces highly collectible, but despite his fame, Paradise Garden fell into disrepair after Finster’s death in 2001. The doc guides the audience through the recent restoration process, where Finsterisms still abound and new ones are constantly discovered.
The interviews with Mills and Wilson are particularly memorable; their sincerity, friendships with Finster, and gratitude for his legacy is palpable in their personable stories.
Though not always the finest camerawork and lighting (both sometimes distracted from the narrative, and make some of the newer footage look confusingly older), Paradise Garden succeeds where others have failed: by presenting Finster not as a caricature “outsider artist,” but as a benevolent, inspirational man and American treasure, who, as one interview subject notes, is “probably better than Picasso.”
The interviews, spliced with footage of Finster’s near-indiscernible preachings, TV interviews, his hysterical Johnny Carson appearance, and conversations with collectors and those working hard to bring Paradise Garden back to its original glory make for a truly inspiring film.
After seeing Paradise Garden, you’ll be filled with a new kind of Southern pride—a joy in the conviction and dedication of our unparalleled regional makers.
Thursday, 11:30 a.m., Trustees Theater.