Tennessee State Museum Presents Stranger in Paradise. The Works of Reverend Howard Finster

The Tennessee State Museum presents Stranger in Paradise. The Works of Reverend Howard Finster an exhibition on view through January 15, 2012 .

urrently on view at the Tennessee State Museum is a special exhibition featuring the work of the late folk artist Howard Finster. The exhibition, Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster, is free and on exhibit in the museum’s Changing Galleries. A self-proclaimed “Man of Visions,” Finster was one of America’s most widely known and prolific self-taught artists, producing more than 46,000 pieces of art before his death in 2001.

Howard Finster, Emages of Visions of Other Worlds Beyond (3077), n.d. Tractor enamel on Plexiglas Courtesy of the Arient Family Collection

Born in rural Alabama in 1916, Finster went on to become a preacher, tent revivalist, and “master of 22 different trades” before building his roadside tribute to inventors, the Plant Farm Museum. Later dubbed “Paradise Garden” by Esquire magazine, Finster’s rock-and junk-encrusted wonderland was the focus of Finster’s life work.

In 1976, however, this focus shifted slightly. As he was using his hands to apply paint to a refurbished bicycle, Finster noticed that the paint smudge on his finger had created a perfect human face. A voice spoke to him, saying, “paint sacred art.” In response, Finster churned out thousands of sermon-laden artworks with subjects ranging from historical characters and popular culture icons like Elvis Presley to evangelistic fantasy landscapes and futuristic cities. Most works are meticulously covered in Finster’s own hand-lettered words and biblical verse.

Finster’s preaching experience and showman-like personality helped shape his public persona and ever-increasing celebrity. To spread his vision beyond “Paradise Garden,” Finster began to design record album covers for rock groups such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads. Interviews, films, along with his legendary appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson further advanced his career.

The industry of active promotion and prolific production which pervaded Finster’s daily life came to define his final years. Though he continued to create many fine works, some critics felt that the quality of his work suffered.

However, Finster’s intentions remained true to his inner voice—to make sacred art. Well-known yet frequently misunderstood, his position remains uncertain, suspended somewhere between awe for his tireless, faith-driven creativity and reluctance by the art community to accept his place in contemporary art.

Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster 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.

To accompany the exhibit, the State Museum has produced an original documentary film entitled, Visual Voices of the South. The film, serves as an orientation for visitors, includes one of the last-known interviews with Finster. Tennessee’s acclaimed self-taught artist, the late Bessie Harvey, is also shown. Many of the artists in the film are represented in the museum’s permanent collection.

Visual Voices will address four critical artistic questions about self-taught art: What is self- taught art? Why do we collect it? Why does the artist create it? And, why is it important? The State Museum Foundation’s Board Treasurer, Rich Roberts, who has amassed a significant personal collection of folk art, shot and donated some of the documentary’s essential footage for the film and was instrumental in underwriting a substantial portion of the project. – www.tnmuseum.org

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