I arrived in Summerville after a two-hour drive northwest of Atlanta. As you continue deeper and deeper into the countryside, the rolling green expanses and picturesque scenery are breathtaking. My destination was Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia, the iconic folk art mecca of the South, built tirelessly by the late Reverend Howard Finster. My best friend and I have come to visit Jordan Poole, recently named executive director of the Paradise Gardens Foundation, who also acted as field services manager when the garden was added to the Georgia Trust’s “Places in Peril” 2010 listing of the most endangered properties in the state. As of March 27 this year, Paradise Garden is also a site officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to all of Poole’s hard work and dedication to the project.
Poole gave me a heartfelt and informed tour of the gardens that only a native to Chattooga County could. “The stars are aligning,” he said repeatedly throughout the day explaining that a streak of good luck has followed the nonprofit since January of 2012. Since then, Paradise Garden, which was once known as the Plant Farm Museum House, has incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, received a nomination to be on the National Register of Historic Places, and opened a new art space downtown called Vision Gallery.
Howard Finster did not begin painting folk art until he was 60 years old, but in the short time until his death at the age of 87, he became a legend among outsider artists and the art world in general, even achieving mainstream fame outside of the arts. His prolific oeuvre total more than 48,000 works, most numbered and labeled with the exact location and time of completion. He has been featured in the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Esquire Magazine, People Magazine, and recently the Chicago Cultural Center held a large retrospective of his work in the summer of 2010. Other prestigious collections such as the State of Georgia Folk Art Collection, Southern Visionary Folk Art Project, Georgia Masterpiece collection, Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institute, National Gallery, the Venice Biennale of 1984, boast Finster originals.
However, folk art is not the only legacy Howard Finster has left behind. He began his life’s masterpiece, what would come to be known as Paradise Garden, in 1961, 15 years before Finster said he received a vision from God telling him to “paint sacred art.” The large, outdoor installation occupies nearly four acres of former swampland by his home in what is technically Penneville, Georgia, in a small neighborhood surrounded by dilapidated mill homes. The sculptures and buildings on the grounds are constructed entirely of found objects and made possible by 30 years of collecting, planting, painting, building, and dredging trenches. Iconic pieces in the garden include the Folk Art Chapel, Bicycle Tower, Mirror House, Hubcap Tower, and the Bible House and are comparable to nothing I’ve ever experienced. The grounds are breathtaking and filled with all of the energy that was left behind after Finster’s passing in 2001.
Enthusiasm for authentically preserving the Finster legacy exudes from Poole, as does passion and commitment to the large-scale project of bringing Paradise Garden back to its original grandeur. After high school, Poole attended the Savannah College of Art and Design, graduating with a master’s degree in historic preservation. He went on to work larger projects including the restoration of Mount Vernon in Washington.
He never thought his career would take him back home, but sometimes life takes us in a different direction and fortunately so, because Poole is the perfect man for the job. As the main caretaker of the gardens, Poole hears dozens of stories each day and claims word of mouth has always been his best source of information. Those who knew Howard Finster, either as a bicycle repairman or the eccentric banjo player who once owned a grocery store, each have their own personal anecdote about the Reverend and are more than willing to share when prompted. However, these are the people who grew up with Finster, members of his generation or acquaintances of the family, a group of people who are becoming fewer and fewer as the years go by. Each story represents the people of Chattooga County, past and present, and connects them to the unique culture of the area. The foundation is currently in partnership with Kennesaw State University to record and preserve each memory with the goal of eventually returning all the oral histories to an on-site research facility to be housed in the Folk Art Chapel.
Community outreach and education programs are also a part of the new vision for the Paradise Garden Foundation, which is also launching annual membership program with discounted rates for students and families and a young collectors club that encompass artist classes at Vision Gallery, lectures on-site in the gardens, auction market guidance, and continued education series in preservation. The foundation is discussing plans for an artist residency program featuring gallery and studio spaces right in the garden. Poole understands that the biggest obstacle at the gardens is selling it to the locals. He sees heritage tourism as an important part of revitalizing and sharing the Finster legacy in the community.
The recent purchase of Paradise Gardens by Chattooga County was a major success and is helping to literally and symbolically return the gardens to the people of the community. The previous director of the foundation, Tommy Littleton, sourced much of the labor, materials, and even board members needed from as far as Atlanta and Chicago. Poole has a different plan and intends for all of the hired work to be sourced locally as much as possible. He believes in a grassroots campaign that incorporates the enthusiasm and experience of the people in town to maintain the site’s authenticity. Unlike Littleton, Poole’s vision for the garden is tied to the economic development of the area, and with the opening of Vision Gallery only a short drive away, he also hopes to create a sustainable arts market to support the next generation of artists as well.
We made the ten-minute drive from the garden to Vision Gallery, which opened its doors on March 10 of this year. Charged with the mission of promoting the artists of Chattooga County, the gallery has identified over 50 living artists in the county, the majority of whom are self-taught.
Fran Meyers, director of the gallery, is also on the board at the Paradise Garden Foundation and the Mentone Arts Council of Alabama. Vision Gallery is a product of her investment in the community and network of friends and artists, and part of a larger mission of creative community placemaking in Chattooga County. The research of Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa (click here for PDF version of their study) has shown that creative placemaking creates jobs, attracts visitors and businesses, keeps money in the community, and increases property values, especially in small towns like Summerville that have been affected the worst by manufacturing flight. Meyers hopes Vision Gallery will not only animate the existing infrastructure, but also inspire the next generation and give young people the courage to show and sell their work.
Before leaving I asked Poole, “How can people help?” and was surprised by the answer that followed. I expected to have a conversation about funding, donor campaigns, and grant support, but instead he asserts that volunteers for work days and visitors to the gardens and gallery are the most important priority in the growth of Paradise Gardens. There is more work to be done in preventative maintenance simply dredging trenches, sorting through Finster’s never-ending collections of recycled materials, trimming rose bushes and cutting back kudzu, but he adamantly believes that if people will simply come and get their hands dirty, they will form a direct connection with the gardens, spread the word, and bring back friends.
Paradise Garden will reopen to the public on May 5, the first day of the 21st annual Finster Fest, a weekend of folk art and music to be hosted in Dowdy Park in downtown Summerville. Highlights include bus tours of the garden accompanied by live music, performances by Patterson Hood of The Drive By Truckers, Roger Allen Wade, Nikki Lane, and artwork for sale from vendors near and far.
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