Press Releases

Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster

For Release: February 2012

CONTACT:          Elizabeth M. Wilson, Director of Marketing Communication

                      330.376.9186 x213,
Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster
February 25 – June 3, 2012
Akron, Ohio, February 2, 2012 —The Akron Art Museum presents the groundbreaking endeavor Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster on view February 25 – June 3, 2012. This is the first major retrospective of the folk art icon, offering visitors an in-depth look at the life and career of a visionary artist represented in the museum’s collection.
A self-proclaimed “Man of Visions,” Reverend Howard Finster is one of America’s most widely known and prolific self-taught artists, producing over 46,000 pieces of art before his death in 2001.
“In support of our commitment to collecting and showing the work of folk and outsider artists, the Akron Art Museum is thrilled to celebrate the work of a true folk artist whose life and career embody the genuine, original expression of his unique vision,” says Ellen Rudolph, the museum’s interim chief curator, “Finster’s work as a pastor, his crossover from folk art traditions to making sacred art and his infatuation with popular culture and history set the stage for him to become a truly fascinating figure.”
This exhibition surveys Finster’s artistic output, covering the variety of themes inherent in his work—much of it relating to his visionary experiences—including Visions of Other Worlds, Sermons in Paint, Historical and Cultural Heroes and Paradise Garden. Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster is curated by Glen C. Davies and is organized by Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Born in 1916, Finster went on to become a preacher, tent revivalist and a “master of 22 different trades” before building his roadside tribute to inventors in Summerville, Georgia, later dubbed “Paradise Gardens” by Esquire magazine. This rock- and junk-encrusted wonderland was the focus of his life after 1961 when he was inspired to “build a Paradise and decorate it with the Bible.” Believing he was “God’s junk man,” Finster collected a myriad of salvaged and discarded items, which he employed to create expressions of his personal visions.
Finster began making works of art in 1976 when he saw the apparition of God’s face on his thumb in white paint while repairing a bicycle. God told him to make sacred art.
Finster went on to produce thousands of sermon-laden artworks with subjects ranging from historical characters and popular culture icons to evangelistic fantasy landscapes and futuristic cities. Most works overflow with biblical verse and stories rendered in Finster’s own meticulously hand-lettered words. Finster believed he was to disperse warnings to people to save their souls from the horrors of hell.
These experiences were very real to Finster and provided a seemingly limitless variety of images for his art, as well as content for his rapid fire, stream-of-consciousness monologues. He created works with subjects ranging from historical characters and popular culture icons like George Washington and Elvis Presley to glimpses into the celestial world that God revealed to him.
While Finster grew out of the American folk art tradition, producing wooden frames for clocks and other functional objects to sell and later embellishing found objects, he also embodies the outsider and visionary art realms. Ultimately “mandated” by God to make sacred art, Finster implemented his unique religious vision in the form of art works and the elaborate environment of Paradise Garden.
The bold, graphic style of Finster’s text-and-image art coupled with his charismatic persona brought people to Paradise Gardens from far and wide, spawning avid collectors and fans.
To spread his vision beyond his gardens, Finster designed record album covers for rock groups such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads. Interviews, films and his famous appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson further advanced his evangelical message. The Coca-Cola Company even commissioned Finster to paint an 8-foot Olympic Coke bottle for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Describing himself as “God’s last red light on planet Earth,” Finster answered and exceeded his mandate to produce sacred works of art, touching believers and nonbelievers alike who could not help but be captivated by the intensity and sincerity of his calling.
Well-known yet frequently misunderstood, his position remains suspended somewhere between awe for his tireless, faith-driven creativity and reluctance by the art community to accept his place in contemporary art.
Related Programming
Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster and Ray Turner: Population Exhibition Party
Friday, March 2, 6 – 9 pm
Celebrate the opening of two exciting new exhibitions. Experience two engrossing talks, peruse amazing artworks and socialize with artists and curators. Artist and independent curator Glen C. Davies will discuss the exhibition Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster at 6 pm. Davies first visited Paradise Garden in 1983 where he painted alongside Finster. This experience, as well as meeting with Finster collectors Jim and Beth Arient, allowed Davies to create an exhibition celebrating the artist’s visions. At 7:30 pm artist Ray Turner will discuss his approach to painting in regard to the exhibition Ray Turner: Population. Exhibition party FREE for members and $10 for non-members.
This lecture was made possible by the Lloyd L. & Louise K. Smith Memorial Foundation and the Akron Art Museum’s George and Ethel Nobil Fund. 
Murmurs and Mystical Visions
Thursday, April 19, 6:30 pm
In his presentation Matthew Sutton traces how Howard Finster's career benefited from the unlikely patronage and connoisseurship of the Athens, Georgia, rock band R.E.M. in the 1980s. Amid the musical and artistic garishness of the decade, the "Man of Visions" and the country's premier alternative rock band forged an alliance grounded in the notion of the Southerner as mainstream "outsider.”
Sutton holds a PhD in American Studies from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. His academic specialty is the literature, music and culture of the U.S. South.
Film Screening: Rock My Religion
Thursday, May 10, 7 pm
Preacher and artist Howard Finster and rock band R.E.M. may seem like strange collaborators, but artist Dan Graham’s video art piece Rock My Religion makes a strong argument that religion and rock are more interconnected than we think. Graham’s film is a provocative examination of the relationship between religion and rock music in contemporary culture. Graham creates a collage of text, music and footage that splices together preachers speaking tongues and Shakers dancing with early rock fans flipping out over Jerry Lee Lewis as well as footage of Patti Smith in concert. The film features original music by Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth. FREE, first-come, first-seated in the Lehner Auditorium.
This exhibition is curated by Glen C. Davies, organized by Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and sponsored in part by Fox Development Corporation; Thomas E. Scanlin; Office of the Chancellor, U of I; Office of the Provost and Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, U of I; Illinois Arts Council; Krannert Art Museum Director’s Circle Fund; and Krannert Art Museum Council.
Lead sponsorship for its presentation in Akron is provided by The Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation with additional funding from the Ohio Arts Council and The Sisler McFawn Foundation.

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