Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Visions of an 'Outsider Artist'; without Formal Training, the Rev. Howard Finster Found Medium for Message

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Visions of an 'Outsider Artist'; without Formal Training, the Rev. Howard Finster Found Medium for Message

Article excerpt

Byline: Charlie Patton

According to the biography posted on his official website, the late Howard Finster was 3 when he had his first vision, the sight of his sister Abby descending from the clouds.

At the age of 15, Finster, born in 1916, responded to another vision by leaving his boyhood home in Alabama to become an itinerant preacher.

But it wasn't until Finster was almost 60 that he received the vision that would change his life and make him one of the most popular and celebrated artists of his time.

That happened when Finster, repairing a bicycle, used his fingers to smooth some paint and saw the image of a face on his thumb. A voice told him to begin painting sacred art.

During the last 25 years of his life, Finster, who died in 2001 at the age of 84, painted constantly. His initial vision had told him to create 5,000 sacred works, so he numbered each one. Passing 5,000 quickly, he kept painting and numbering until he had created more than 46,000 pieces.

Now that prolific career is being celebrated at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, which is presenting "Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster." This exhibit provides an in-depth survey of Finster's career.

"Like many of the grand masters of the Renaissance, the Rev. Howard Finster communicated his passionate and deeply spiritual message through familiar iconography," said Marcelle Polednik, director of MOCA. "So, instead of using traditional representations of Christ, angels or demons, he often referenced popular culture, such as Elvis, Daniel Boone and UFOs, to capture his audience into reading his prophetic visions."

In fact, his fame spread when University of Georgia art professor Andy Nasisse brought Finster to the attention of the Athens-based alternative rock group REM, which commissioned Finster to create the cover for the 1984 album "Reckoning." The next year, he did an album cover for "Little Creatures" by the Talking Heads. Rolling Stone named it the album cover of the year.

That brought some criticism from conservative Christians who didn't think a man of God should be associating with rock stars. But as Finster told the Times-Union in a 1987 interview, the religious message he put on the Talking Heads album cover "reached more people than my 45 years of pastoring."

That interview took place while Finster was serving as master artist in residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach.

"People are uneasy about me," he told the Times-Union. "I get condemned every once in a while. Churches want to get rock 'n' roll off the air. While they're trying to get them off the air, I used them for my missionaries."

Although he traveled widely as his fame spread - he appeared on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," was represented by galleries in New York and was a frequent guest on college campuses - Finster's anchor in the last four decades of his life was what he initially called the Plant Farm Museum House, which was later dubbed Paradise Gardens by Esquire magazine. …

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