Ga. county buys late folk artist's Paradise Garden

DORIE TURNER Associated Press Published:

ATLANTA (AP) -- A northwest Georgia county has bought the garden where the late folk artist Howard Finster held court for tourists and art lovers from around the world.

Chattooga County, where Paradise Garden has been based since Finster began building it in 1961, used donations and grant money to buy the small plot for $125,000, said Jordan Poole, executive director with the Paradise Garden Foundation. The foundation will continue to work on restoring the quirky garden, which was featured in a 1983 R.E.M. video.

Finster, a bicycle repairman and preacher who turned to art to spread God's word, has long been considered the grandfather of the American folk art movement. He filled the garden, located about 100 miles northwest of Atlanta, with primitive mosaics, sculptures and buildings. It was the setting for numerous weddings that Finster presided over.

The garden fell into disrepair after his death in 2001. The county's ownership will protect it from ever being closed down, Poole said Wednesday.

"It means Paradise Garden is still owned by an entity -- it can't be snatched up by a private investor who goes in there and starts removing everything," Poole said.

The county bought the four-acre plot in late December after receiving news it had won an Appalachian Regional Commission grant, said the county's sole commissioner, Jason Winters. The county is in a much better position to apply for grants to help restore the crumbling structures in the garden than the nonprofit that bought the property from Finster's family, he said.

Winters said he hopes to create a tourism economy around the garden, which drew more than 2,000 visitors last year with no marketing. The county will lease the garden to Poole's foundation, which will be in charge of maintaining and restoring the property, Winters said.

"Finster was a citizen of Chattooga County first, and he was proud of his home and we need to be proud of him," Winters said.

So far, volunteers have helped shore up the tier wedding cake-like World's Folk Art Church and put on a new roof with money raised by auctioning off art from the garden. Volunteers also help guide tours of the garden for visitors who show up on its doorstep.

The foundation has also revived FinsterFest, a folk art festival that Finster held every year in the garden to help promote hundreds of unknown artists.

"It's exactly what my father would have wanted," Beverly Finster said Wednesday night.

Her father began creating what he called "sacred art" in 1976 after a vision appeared to him in a dollop of paint on one of his fingertips. His art, which featured everything from ants to Elvis, gained national fame after members of R.E.M. befriended him.

The artist painted the covers of albums for R.E.M., Talking Heads and other bands in the 1980s, and soon his primitive paintings and sculptures became famous, drawing thousands every year to his home near the Alabama-Georgia border.

His art spilled from the basement of his home into his backyard, where he carefully placed mosaic Bible verses into the sidewalk and turned objects like bicycles, car motor parts and dolls into sculptures. Some of the objects in the garden look like the contents of a child's toy box or a recycling bin were dumped into piles of wet concrete, drying into a misshapen heap.

A shack is made out of bottles embedded in concrete. Trash cans are painted with messages about transforming trash into treasure. One wall is a scrapbook of family photos and clippings from newspapers, all preserved behind glass.

Everything about the garden is folksy, right down to the name, which is Paradise Garden or Paradise Gardens, depending who you ask. Howard Finster -- who sometimes wrote his name as "Finister," which is the way residents in Chattooga pronounce it -- used both in legal documents, Poole said.

The artist eventually produced 48,000 pieces, including quirky wooden statues and sculptures made from other people's trash. He awed architects with his complex folk art church, which seemed impossible for a man lacking formal engineering training.