Paradise Garden: Sacred Trash
In 1960, Howard Finster began construction of an elaborate sculpture garden in a two-and-a-half acre swamp next to his house in Pennville, Georgia. First he filled in what had been a community dump: "It took me seven years to fill in that swamp of rich muck that went three to four feet in depth." (Turner, p.54) Somewhat miraculously, the garden today is a marvel, with a tower made out of rusted bicycle frames, walkways inlaid with mirrors and cast-off jewelry, and hundreds of individual mixed-media creations. It is a vision of Eden, built up out of a dump and constructed of trash. Finster's combination of text and visual forms provides the visitor with a truly unique experience, the point of which is the Biblical edification of the soul, according to the artist. Many other examples of this sort of earthly paradise exist in the tradition of folk art (Dewhurst, pp. 85-87), but Finster's so-called "Paradise Garden" is especially striking in its overtly evangelical theme. Like the eight-foot concrete shoe bearing a verse from Ephesians, "And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace," many of the pieces within the garden illustrate Biblical passages, so that, like his daughter said, "Anyone could understand it that way."
There are certainly curious details, like the jar containing the tonsils of a boy who visited the garden immediately following their removal. The purpose of such pieces seems to be to provide the visitor with an interesting experience, to keep it fun and slightly weird, to bring in the crowds. And bring in the crowds it does, allowing Finster lots of company and perhaps the occasional lost soul ready for the word of God.
Also on the property is the more recent addition of a wedding-cake-like building that Finster calls the "World's Folk Art Church." Interestingly, the words "folk art" could not have been a part of Finster's vocabulary until his "discovery" by the media and the art establishment, in the early 1980's. Since that time, he has become the most exhibited "folk artist" in America and has even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and painted album covers for rock groups like R.E.M. and the Talking Heads.
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