Stars Align over Paradise Garden for Finster Fest 2012

Jordan Poole beams optimism about his organization's growth. All photos by Kathryn Burnes.

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.

The mirror house and gardens.

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.

Dredging Finster’s original trenches are a very important part of maintenance at Paradise Gardens, which was once a stretch of swampland.

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.

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.

Finster’s Hubcap Tower.

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, artist and director of Vision Gallery, stands in front of her work.

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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  • Usefultouseless
    May 14, 2012 at

    It seems you did not even attend the festival. The Drive by Truckers did not even play Patterson Hood did, he is a seperate act, and was Fabulous and brought his sweet family with him which included his small children. Looks like you are being the non Christian like by posting the songs that were not even played. maybe you need to get you facts straight before trying to trash a good cause.  Do you not have anything better to do with your time? Shame on you!!! Shame on you!!! I ‘m not sure what your out to prove but to me you just look like a fool!!!

  • Usefultouseless
    May 14, 2012 at

    get a life!!! you also might want to research the facts before you post such non sense!!!!

  • Brown0046
    May 9, 2012 at

    Where is the money for Jordan’s salary coming from? Is that why the people who are now running the foundation for the project to restore the gardens trying to find so many ways to reach into the pockets of others? I want to know that my donations are not going for a salary when each dollar raised should be spent on saving Howard’s Paradise Gardens. Is Jordan a volunteer? It would be premature and very bad judgment on someone’s part to have money diverted from what is hopefully the main goal of money raised to restore the gardens.

  • Brown0046
    May 9, 2012 at

    Where is the money for Jordan’s salary coming from?  Is that why the people who are now running the foundation for the project to restore the gardens trying to find so many ways to reach into the pockets of others?  I want to know that my donations are not going for a salary when each dollar raised should be spent on saving Howard’s Paradise Gardens.  Is Jordan a volunteer? It would be premature and very bad judgment on someone’s part to have money diverted from what is hopefully the main goal of money raised to restore the gardens.  

    • NWGAnative
      May 10, 2012 at

      Paradise Garden is a non-profit Foundation.  Majority of the money comes from grants and support from other foundations.  Poole operates under the direction of a board of directors who decide his job description and salary.  Most of the work being done at the gardens has been done by companies through in-kind donations or by Poole himself with the help of other volunteers.  Poole has a masters degree in historic preservation, he first began work on the project through efforts with the Georgia Trust, and he is well qualified and deserves to be paid for his work like anyone else who works at a non-profit.  

      • folkartfa.
        May 10, 2012 at

        Thank you for the information. Is his salary public record and if so how do I find more specific details? I would think the foundation would want to ensure transparency in such expenditures. Do you also know anything about the salaries of the nonprofit group that has worked at the gardens since Howard’s death? I may be wrong, but I think all the time and expense was given by the people serving that nonprofit.

        • NWGAnative
          May 15, 2012 at

          You’re wrong, I assure you the money has not coming from the people who previously worked there.  Do you know anything about the way a non-profit works?  I suggest you do some research.  

      • Brown0046
        May 11, 2012 at

        I have another question for you that I believe you can clarify. Since it is my understanding that the newly formed foundation with Jordan as the head has not yet reached nonprofit status with the IRS. Until this happens, how are the donations receipted?

        • NWGAnative
          May 15, 2012 at

          Paradise Gardens has always been a non-profit, just not on the federal level until earlier this year. 

  • guest
    May 5, 2012 at

    You have got to see this!!!! What a gift to the county! A “God Send” Copy and paste this URL address:… 
    Thank goodness we have been sent a person who has a vision of the restoration. Only problem is that it is his vision and whatever it takes for him to promote himself. Get off the ego trip Jordan Poole and put the focus on the right place!! This can be the biggest thing for the future of the county if you and Janet Byington can possibly get this project back on track. Many local people have agreed with you about the “stuff” and “junk” but was it not appropriate for you to turn that concept around instead of agreeing with it? Your position should be that with the help of the community, this project can be a wonderful thing to make the county a more viable area to attract new businesses. Please ask your friend Sylvia of Jason Winters’ office to list the businesses she keeps referring to time and again that have come to Summerville. I just don’t see that many. She might ought to list the ones gone under too. In my opinion you and your associates have so missed the point on the future of the gardens, it will not make it even though I think you are the master of hype. The pictures of the new front entrance show neat little flower beds. Whose idea was that? Howard Finster never planted such a garden of preciseness. But again, this is not about Howard’s vision is it?

    • Stephanie
      May 6, 2012 at

      Are you responding to this article or Creative Loafing’s? Have you met Jordan? I can likely answer the second question, and the answer is no. I had the privilege of meeting Jordan Poole yesterday, and in no way received the impression that he had an agenda of self promotion. He has already done an incredible amount of work on the gardens, and the promotion that has been done about Howard’s Paradise has been for the Gardens, not any individual involved in the restoration project.

       Do you want to formulate a more informed opinion and truly help with restoring Howard Finster’s vision? Perhaps you should consider volunteering at the Gardens, meeting the director for yourself and sharing some of his enthusiasm for honoring the life and vision of Howard Finster and the joy that he brought to the world. His legacy did much for the Kingdom of God because of the joy and passion he brought to the world, rather than employing the oh-so-current “witness” by negativity, criticism, and a distinctively un-Christlike attitude. 

      With all due respect, think about it. 

      • Brown0046
        May 8, 2012 at

        to what you’ve assumed, Stephanie, I have known Jordan for quite a
        few years. It sounds like you haven’t had enough exposure to the
        situation to make an informed comment on what I have written. No, I
        was not responding to the Loafing article. I was sharing the site to
        show the hype that Jordan has been able to generate from the media.
        The grandiose manner in which he presents and
        encourages that which is printed in these articles should be viewed
        as nothing more than self promotion. It should be obvious that the
        amount of attention garnered by Mr. Poole diminishes from the real
        story of Howard Finister and Paradise Gardens. You met Jordan
        recently and were easily inveigled. Had you become as involved as I
        have been, you would likely develop a very different opinion of

  • Pooleonlystaraligning
    May 5, 2012 at

    “Oh what a tangled web we weave,
    When first we practice to deceive”

    “A sound head, an honest heart, and an humble spirit are the three best guides through time and to eternity”

    Both quotes from Sir Walter Scott that are timeless. Just seemed appropriate response to this Casual Loafing article and needing to be said at this point.

  • truthbetold
    May 5, 2012 at

    I am not sure Howard would appreciate the lyrics to some of the songs sung by the Drive By Truckers. This band is scheduled to play at the Finster Fest and some of their songs include titles such as:
    The Presidents Penis Is Missing
    Goddamn Lonely Love
    Dead, Drunk, And Naked
    This F——Job

    If the titles aren’t enough to make you wonder then you should check out the lyrics. Not exactly a Christian based family fest as in the past.

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