Rev. Howard Finster -- renowned Georgia folk artist; builder, founder and leader of the World’s Folk Art Church; stranger from another world; and generally nice guy – was one of the easiest interview subjects that my students ever encountered. All they needed was a single question that had something to do with Finster, his life or his work. “When were you born?” “How did you start to paint?” “What is your message?” Any of these and many others would start the Reverend on a monologue that would continue as long as the interviewer was willing to listen.
One Wednesday at the end of one school day, a student told me that she was going to Summerville to interview Reverend Finster. She said that she would tell me about it at church that evening. I told her, “Now you tell Howard when you need to leave. If you don’t, he’ll still be talking when the Wednesday night program is over.” She showed up at church in Calhoun about 10:00 PM, long after most people had left. “I just couldn’t tell him to stop,” she said. “He was so nice.”
Talking was like painting to Howard Finster, something that he did as though under compulsion. He painted more than he talked only because most of the time he had no one handy to talk with. If he had always been surrounded with listeners, he might never have painted.
Because of his willingness to talk and because of the intrinsically interesting nature of what he had to say and the unique style with which he said it, Finster became the most well-known folk artist in America. He appeared at colleges all over the country, had his art in major museums, had several books written about himself and his work, and, to top all of this off, appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, an appearance in which he talked, sang, and played the guitar. Howard Finster had star quality.
Today, folk art is a booming business though a somewhat controversial one. Even the name, “Folk Art,” is controversial. For many years, “folk art” referred to traditional arts and crafts produced by ordinary, non-academic, non-trained individuals for their own use and enjoyment. Such items as weathervanes, windmill weights, paintings of various sorts, quilts, carvings and other crafts were considered folk art. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia was the ultimate venue for this type of “folk art,” which is still what many critics mean by the term today.
Finster and his self-built and named, World’s Folk Art Church became, symbolically, the ultimate home for another type of folk art. This art too had been produced for many years, but it came from a different imaginative source. Finster’s art and that or earlier artists like him came from deep in the artist’s imagination. This art was often inspired by religion or by some source akin to religion. This art, sometimes called “outsider art” or “art brut,” seemed to come from the same inspiration that that led to works like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, El Greco’s View of Toledo, or Picasso’s Guernica. The difference was (is) that the artists who produced this “folk art” were not trained and had neither the intellectual or educational background of recognized mainstream artists. Finster would populate a portrait of Shakespeare with a background of angels and UFO’s; the painting would have a message written on it, sometimes at length. The colors would be the vibrant tones of tractor enamel. Perspective and composition would be rudimentary at best. And yet, the works had an undeniable power and appeal for many people. This newly admired folk art seemed to touch a mystery that was hidden deep within the artist. From Finster’s vivid and fantastic scenes of other worlds to Clementine Hunter’s solid yet childlike depictions of life on a Louisiana plantation to the bizarre self-portraits of Mose Tolliver, these artists seem to be in touch with a wildly beautiful and chaotic inner world.
The French artist, Jean Dubuffett, had found this power in art produced by mentally disturbed patients and had called it “art brut,” but he was mainly interested in art that came from some type of mental incapacity. Folk art is more often the product of seemingly ordinary people who have a gift and a need for expression that has never been professionally or academically developed. The terms “Outsider Art” and Self-Taught” have come more and more into common use, but no term seems to suit everyone.
For example, was Lanier Meaders, the Georgia potter a folk artist? He certainly followed in a long family tradition of potters. Yet, today many seek Meaders’ face jugs which are an off shoot of the potters’ traditional products. In fact, it seems that more and more potters focus on face jugs and other artistic products instead of more utilitarian ware.
Similarly, most people would call Grandma Moses a folk artist, yet she seems to be the forerunner of artists like Clementine Hunter and even Howard Finster. I guess what all this means, to me at least, is that over the last forty years or so an appreciation has developed for art produced by untrained but talented artists, artists who in an earlier time might have been completely overlooked or passed over as strange.
In the first instance the work of Bill Traylor, now considered a sort of “master” was appreciated by one man who provided him with materials and bought his work. Traylor is now one of the most expensive artists in the genre.
In the second instance, Henry Darger lived alone and spent most of his life as a dish washer. At his death, the man who went to clean out Darger’s room discovered thousands of works of art and a novel that ran on to thousands and thousands of pages. The art and book chronicled the bizarre mind of Darger but also revealed fantasy world in which he lived and which he brought to reality in his art. I won’t try to go into Darger’s fantasy, but it involved a world war with heroes who were the prepubescent, hermaphroditic Vivian girls. Bet that got your attention.
More and more books are published about folk art or outsider art, but exhibit catalogs remain a major source of information. Here are some books and catalogs that we have on the subject (and some that we don’t):
1. Howard Finster wrote and self-published one early work: HOWARD FINSTER'S VISION OF 1982: Vision of 200 Light Years Away, Space Born of Three Generations, From Earth to the Heaven of Heavens. This book, softcover, was written by Finster in longhand and then set photographically. On some pages there is smaller script between the normal lines, which Finster explained, “I wanted people to read between the lines.” The book also has drawings by Finster as illustrations. While this book is not rare, it is also not easy to find.
2. Around 1990, as Finster’s fame spread, a number of books were written about him and his art. Howard Finster Stranger from Another World Man of Visions Now on This Earth by Tom Patterson and Howard Finster is a personalized account of Finster’s life and work with many illustrations. The binding on this book has a tendency to become loose. Also in 1989, Knopf published Howard Finster: Man of Visions by J. F. Turner, probably the most scholarly work on Finster. And the same year, Finster, himself, published another hand lettered book, Howard Finster Man of Visions which included much more autobiographical detail and many photographs. I’m sure that other books on Finster have been written.
3. Besides these book by and about Finster, there are many, many college and exhibit catalogs which chronicle his exhibitions and lectures on campuses. Many of these contain valuable information and photographs of early works that may not be cataloged anywhere else. We have the following in our inventory. The World’s Folk Art Church: Reverend Howard Finster and Family tells about the Finster visit to Lehigh University in 1986. By this time, other members of his family had started to paint. More Than Land or Sky: Art from Appalachia by Barbara Shissler Nosanow is an extremely nice catalog of an exhibit at the National Museum of American Art in 1981, that included one of the earliest displays of Finster’s work. The title of the catalog came from a Finster song (he played the banjo and sang, often composing his own songs.) Where Atlanta, 1998 was an Atlanta magazine. This issue featured a Finster Santa Claus cover and had a brief article on Finster's version of "The Night Before Christmas.
4. Of course, there are probably thousands of books, catalogs and articles of various sorts that deal not just with Howard Finster but other artists as well. A few catalogs that we have are: Georgia Folk Art by Tom Patterson, Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art1770-1776, The Warren and Sylvia Lowe Collection Folk Art Auction Catalog, The Private Collection of Howard Smith Folk Art Auction, and a copy of the program for Folk Fest, '94. We also have some books on artists besides Finster. William Edmondson: A Retrospective by Georganne Fletcher provides a comprehensive look at African-American, Tennesee stonemason Edmondson. Billy Roper: Visual Storyteller by Pamela Jane Sachant is a catalog and essay on an important new Georgia artist who had an exhibit at North Georgia College in Dahlonegah. R. A. Miller: A Tribute is the catalog of an exhibit of the famed Georgia artist's work from an exhibit at Brenau College in Gainesville. Brothers in Clay by John Burrison is the standard work on Georgia's many traditional potters, including the Meaders, the Hewells, the Gordy brothers and many others. Kentucky Quilts: Roots and Wings is the catalog from an exhibit of Kentucky quilters. African American Folk Art in Kentucky is the catalog from an exhibit featuring black folk artists in Kentucky.
5. Of interest to people who seek out traditional art, an especially good work is Folk Art in America: A Living Tradition which deals with a joint show involving the Atlanta High Museum Of Art & the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection in 1974. Many other books deal with traditional folk art as well.
6. Finally, there are many peripheral items that relate to folk art and artists. In December 2001, TV Guide, December 22-28, 2001 had a 9/11 commemorative flag cover that was done by Georgia folk artist, R. A. Miller. The copy we have is signed by Miller. Likewise we will be putting several of Howard Finster’s personally produced postcards that feature his works and messages.
Folk Art has become a big business which has attracted many “artists” who think that a cute cat or a stick figure will make them famous. Go on Ebay some time, click Art, then Folk Art and finally type in Outsider. The results are a study.