Elvis and Angels: Mixed Iconography and the Meaning of "Sacred"
Howard Finster's paintings are both prophetic and playful, often mixing pop icons with deadly serious admonitions to repent. He calls his work "sermons in paint," and one may see a highly personal missionary zeal, even as he obviously intends to entertain and amuse the viewer. In one painting of a vision of hell, Finster has scrawled text between horrific figures which warns, "HELL IS A HELL OF A PLACE" with "NO COLD COKES" to be had. The interspersed text provides a cajoling, sometimes humorous, directness to the paintings, which are already bold and simple in line and color. These paintings are extremely frank about their purpose: to spread the word of God. Finster himself is an unabashed evangelist for Christ, a man with an urgent message. And it is through these essentially evangelical painted sermons that Howard Finster now preaches. Or, in his own words, "I have visions of other worlds. I been out there I seen them out there I am here as a second Noah to point the people to the world beyond."
Howard Finster was born in 1916 in Valley Head, Alabama, and he grew up admiring his grandfather, a traveling preacher. At the age of three, Finster claims that he had a vision of his then-deceased sister coming down from heaven to visit him, and, when he turned sixteen, he began preaching the gospel at tent revivals and in both the Baptist and Methodist Churches. His burning desire to preach has been a life-long passion and has found an outlet in his painting.
Additionally, the particular flavor of the religion Finster has absorbed
and promulgated serves as an interesting touchstone for discussion of
meaning in his artwork. The tent revival, especially, has been a common
component of religious life for Finster and his regional peers. The revival
meeting, the first of which was probably the famous Cane Ridge Revival in
the summer of 1801, was, and still is, a transforming experience for many,
primarily in the rural South. Finster himself first felt called to preach
in a tent revival in 1932 and later saved his money to buy his own tent,
which he carried to towns across Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, preaching
his own brand of hell-fire and brimstone revivalism.
To spread the word about his revival meetings, Finster used handbills,
pamphlets, and newspaper advertisements, like this one. Note that "BIBLE
PICTURES WILL BE SHOWN."
Revivalism is an interesting expression of faith, and one which informs Finster's art more than any other single cultural influence. In general terms, the tent revival is loosely organized and allows for the spontaneous participation of anyone who feels "called" to participate. Further, the sermon is often at least partially improvised, and the overall emphasis is on feeling and sincere expression of emotion.
The same performance values may be seen in Howard Finster's art. It is stylistically quite loose, with figures and text and dashes of exuberant color all virtually leaping out at the viewer. Finster's art is seemingly spontaneous, and, in a larger sense, Finster himself has unexpectedly found himself testifying and preaching through painting, like a worshipper spontaneously filled with the spirit and called to testify before the revival meeting. If we are to take his claim that his artworks are "painted sermons," then one must see the parallels between these paintings and the kinds of sermons which Finster has heard and sometimes delivered throughout his life. The revival sermon is often improvised, yet punctuated with certain stock refrains, just as Finster's painting is always evolving and clearly self-taught, yet adherent to several recurrent themes and motifs.
Furthermore, it apparently matters little to Finster that his work shows him to be untrained. The revivalist emphasis on the worthiness of any inspired person's participation underlies such unabashed amateurism. The result is a body of work which displays both an urgency about its thematic content and a self-assuredness about its presentation.
It must also be noted that Finster pastored two churches and taught
innumerable Sunday School classes, many using diagrams to get his point
across. Artist Eleanor Dickinson has documented many such Baptist
"preaching diagrams" in the rural South. (Turner, p.
44). She notes a
lithograph from 1895 in which there is seen "the Pilgrim's Progress idea of
the path of the soul through earth to end up in Heaven or Hell. It's a
pathway-to-salvation diagram. They might put it on the side of the tent as
the theme for the revival and use a different topic every night...[the 1885
lithograph] is very symmetrical, as are many of Howard Finster's paintings.
The design, format, and use of words are also similar to Howard's art. As a
Baptist preacher, he certainly would have seen diagrams like this one. He
also would have used Sunday School materials in which there is a lot of
this interaction of image and lettering." (quoted in
Turner, pp. 44-45)
As Finster's daughter, Virginia Brown, recalls: "He'd write on the blackboard and then he'd draw the pictures and explain it. Anyone could understand it that way. His drawings would always refer to the Bible, and he would draw humans, animals, and trees. He had some little drawings at church to give out as souvenirs." Finster had not yet been "called " to paint, but the seeds for his "sermons in paint" were planted and well-watered in the years he spent preaching this way.
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