“I took the pieces you threw away, put them together by night and day. Washed by the rain. Dried by the sun. A million pieces all in one.”

Howard finster

Just under a two-hour drive from Atlanta, the small town of Summerville is home to Paradise Garden, the former house, studio, and stomping ground of folk artist and Baptist minister, Howard Finster.

 As the story goes, one day in 1976, Finster was touching up the paint on a bicycle when a face appeared in the paint telling him to create sacred art – 5,000 pieces. And that’s exactly what he did, but he didn’t stop there.

A busy mind with even busier hands

Finster was a man of visions, and he became an obsessive chronicler of these visions through his art and words. He had a busy mind, and even busier hands. Now, Paradise Garden is teeming with nearly 47,000 individual sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and out buildings that he created before he died in 2001. It’s enough work to take an entire lifetime to untangle. Taken together, the work constitutes its own landscape within the four-acre property, standing in the shadow of the iconic Prayer Tower.

Finster saw true beauty in the world, especially in the trashed, discarded items that other people had thrown away, which became his medium. His charm was not lost on his contemporaries. Finster’s work landed him an appearance on the Johnny Carson show. The Talking Heads used his artwork on the cover of 1985’s Little Creatures, and R.E.M. filmed much of the “Radio Free Europe” video there. Pop artist Keith Haring, who died shortly after visiting Paradise Garden, is even represented by his signature style along the path.

Taking a leisurely stroll along the path through the cluttered buildings and towering fixtures is the best way to soak up the mystical beauty of the labyrinth he built. Finster created a truly inviting environment here, a gathering place without pretense. And it can be as secular as one makes it—no fire and brimstone on display here. Paradise Garden is a fantasmagorical experience. The sheer quantity of Finster’s work and the whimsical flourishes on display chronicle the South in captivating and endearing ways. 

A perfect time to visit Paradise Garden is Oct. 9-10 when the annual “Finsterfest” will bring together three stages of live music and more than 60 folk and craft artist.

For more information

Visit paradisegardenfoundation.org.

Chad Radford is the editor of Rough Draft and an Atlanta-based music writer, editor, and nature lover.