The term "visionary artist" is used to describe any creative type who is able to step out of the norm of familiar ideas of content, media and approach. If we're lucky, truly "visionary" individuals open our minds to the inherent, transformative power of art while pointing us toward new directions, or even realms, that go beyond surface appeal.
The 2014 documentary Paradise Garden is a celebration of one such artist. During the film's 83 minutes, we're invited into the life, art and colorful home of "outsider artist" Howard Finster (1916-2001), a man guided by what he felt was an absolute vision, provided by the ultimate muse: God.
Alabama-born, Finster claimed to have received his first spiritual vision at the age of 3, when his deceased sister came to him, telling the boy, "Howard, you're gonna be man of visions." Twelve years later, Finster was a teenaged tent revival preacher, a calling he would ultimately honor for 45 years.
Finster spent his early adult life raising a family and pursuing the path of an evangelical, augmenting his income as a textile worker. In 1961, he purchased a parcel of swampy acreage in Summerville, Georgia. Fueled by spoonfuls of instant coffee washed down with Coca-Cola, Finster worked around the clock, landscaping and creating statues and temple-like-structures with repurposed items ranging from bottles to old bicycles, building a shrine-like enclave in the Georgia woods that was soon known as Paradise Garden.
In 1976, God told 60-year-old Finster to not only "paint sacred art," but fill a specific work order of 5,000 paintings. Finster complied. Using tractor enamel to render religious-infused images on every available surface, the self-taught Finster created colorful works that touched on everything from Elvis to eschatological visions, many covered in scriptural passages.
After fulfilling this divine command in 1985, Finster received God's second decree to continue painting. Four years later, Finster had completed 10,000 more pieces. By the time of his death, Finster had finished more than 46,000 pieces of sacred art.
Writer-director Ava Leigh Stewart's Paradise Garden encapsulates Finster's saga through interviews with fans, artists, art critics, collectors and video footage of the artist himself. The film also acknowledges the project of the Paradise Garden Foundation and its efforts to maintain Finster's visionary wonderland while spreading the gospel of his remarkable work.
Starting in the mid-'70s, Finster became a kind of minor celebrity in the art world and popular media. In the film, there are snippets of TV news stories, as well as Finster's now-famous 1985 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where he won over the crowd and host with his charisma and charm.
When the ever-magnanimous Finster was featured in a show at Phyllis Kind Gallery in Manhattan, he opened a door for other outsider artists like St. EOM, R.A. Miller and Purvis Young to find a greater audience. Paradise Garden regular and Finster devotee Keith Haring even installed a sculpture that still stands on the grounds. Atlanta's High Art Museum's Susan Crawley is a knowledgeable presence throughout the film, as are Finster collector Thomas Scanlin and visual artists R. Land and Stephen Penley, who explain how Finster influenced their respective sensibilities in their own painterly practices. Jordan Poole, Paradise Garden Foundation executive director, is also an erudite source, describing the importance of preserving Finster's legacy and land.
Much of Finster's wider exposure came in part due to the involvement of musicians. Both R.E.M. and the Talking Heads used his paintings for album covers; the film features humorous and even poignant interviews with R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, the Talking Heads' Chris Frantz, the B-52s' Cindy Wilson and Indigo Girl Amy Ray.
Paradise Garden most certainly succeeds in conveying the influence of Finster as both a painter and person, but the film has a few interview omissions. Chicago-based collectors Jim and Beth Arient, who were intimates of Finster's for many years, are missing from the story. And though she's featured in two brief snippets, daughter Beverly Finster-Guinn is otherwise notably absent.
Stewart is admittedly dealing with a finite amount of historic footage, as her subject has been dead for years, yet there is a sense of padding in Paradise Garden. Quite frankly, interviews with the country band Blackhawk fall flat, and the recurring use of footage of Finster's sculpture garden sometimes feels a bit redundant.
Those minor criticisms aside, Paradise Garden is an engaging and enjoyable tribute to Howard Finster that will appeal to those curious about a truly enigmatic American artist of the 20th century, and satisfy those who admire this gospel-driven creator.