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October 06, 1987 - Image 8

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1987-10-06

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ARTS
The Michigan Daily Tuesday, October 6, 1987 Page 8

Reverend

pop culture status

By Avra Kouffman
Howard Finster is anything but a
mundane, run-of-the-mill artist. Or
Reverend. Or senior citizen. He is a
celebrity. A pop culture pastor. A
phenomenon. Above all, he is a man
with a message.
This is the kind of hype that one
encounters when researching the life
of
Rev. Howard Finster, the 70 year-
old preacher turned artist. With fans
ranging from R.E.M. and the
Talking Heads to Nancy Reagan, it's
not surprising that Finster has
become a media darling. He has
recently been featured in publications
running the gamut from People to
The Wall Street Journal. He has
appeared on the Tonight Show and
his work is collected by the
Smithsonian.
What is going on? Is all the
fuss warranted? Everyone will have
the chance to decide for themselves
at the Howard Finster Man of
Visions show presented in the
Union's Pond Rooms this month.
The show, which includes over
40 works of art by Finster, was
engineered by University student
Frederick Leighton. Leighton spent

four months with Rev. Finster this
past summer at the artist's home in
Georgia. He helped renovate
Finster's Paradise Garden, a two and
a half acre garden filled with
sculptures made of recycled junk and
hand-painted Biblical messages.
Begun in the '60s, the garden has
recently received a good deal o f
attention. It is one of the tourist
attractions in a package tour
featuring other hip spots/pit stops
such as New York, San Francisco,
and Graceland. Up to 100 visitors a
week come to gawk at Finster's
creations.
Paradise Garden has also gained
notoriety as the setting for the
R.E.M. video "Radio Free Europe."
Finster is closely associated with
R.E.M.; he did the cover artwork for
their album Reckoning in 1983. A
year later, he did the artwork for the
cover of the Talking Heads' Little
Creatures album.
Finster's garden, now some 25
years in the making, is not his only
big project. He is also the creator
and founder of the World Folk Art
church, built on a plot of land
adjacent to the garden. The church,
which houses Finster's art and
memorabilia, is a fitting testament
to a man who spent over 40 years as

a traveling Baptist preacher.
Religion has been the focus of
Finster's entire adult life, and it is
certainly the focus of his art. Most
of his works are inscribed with in-
spirational messages and, in fact,
Finster credits God with inspiring
him to paint. He claims that in
1976, he had a vision in which God
told him to paint sacred art. A
similar vision decades earlier
encouraged him to begin preaching.
Finster heeded God on both
occasions; he devoted most of his
life to preaching and then
obsessively painted almost 7000
artworks in ten harried years.
Rev. Finster is an amazingly
prolific artist and lately he has
achieved international recognition.
This thrills him because he feels that
his work has successfully spread the
word of God to many. For example,
millions of people have already seen
his message-inscribed Talking Heads
cover.
The famous cover came about in
a funny way. "David Byrne has never
even met Howard (Finster),"
explains Fred Leighton. "He bought
one of his paintings at a New York
gallery, and did it all through agents.
He gave the gallery owner the
general idea of what he wanted." The
gallery owner then contacted Finster,
who was paid $5000 for his artwork.
The album cover went on to win a
Grammy for "Best Cover Art," and
the original 3 foot by 3 foot
- painting is now worth $100,000.
Finster has a much closer
relationship with fellow Georgians
R.E.M. "Michael Stipe comes to
visit Howard at least three or four
times a year," says Leighton. This
past summer, Stipe videotaped
Finster putting the finishing touches
on his Church of World Art, and
Leighton hints that the resulting
footage may appear in an upcoming
R.E.M. video.
It is hard to assess Finster's
work, as well as his sincerity, in the
midst of all the commotion. Is
Finster a shrewd old man exploiting
his small town origins and campy
background for fame and fortune? Or
is his art really an extension of,
sincere religious beliefs?
"He's extremely sincere,
extremely kind," says Leighton.
"Once you meet him, you don't
think he doesn't believe this stuff.

Just the sheer amount of work that
he's done makes you believe there is
a real force in his life. Even if you
don't believe in God, you believe
he's sincere."
Further evidence of Finster's
sincerity is the fact that he toiled for
years before getting positive
recognition. Even now, he is not
appreciated by his neighbors. "A lot
of people don't understand any of
what he does..." Leighton continues,
"People are jealous... it's an econ-
omically depressed area. They don't
consider his artwork real art."
Undoubtedly, many people in the
conservative Pennville/Summerville
area of Georgia look askance at a
man who builds huge sculptures out
of bicycle parts and designs his
church in the shape of a three-tiered
wedding cake. But in the end their
opinions don't matter. Howard
Finster is not one to back down in
the face of adversity.
"I don't think it really bothers
him that people in the town don't
like him because he gets visitors
from all over the world... Once they
put him on Johnny Carson, I think
the townspeople gave him a little
more appreciation," laughs
Leighton.
Finster and his wife Pauline have
five children and fifteen
grandchildren. Most of the clan has
remained in Summerville and a few
younger Finsters are aspiring artists
themselves. So far, none have been
half as successful as the eldest
Finster. He is assuredly a hard act to
follow.
The show at the Michigan Union
is successful in imparting the spirit
of Finster's work, but it cannot
possibly encompass the range of an
artist who has painted almost 7000
works and filled both a huge church
and garden with various forms of art.
Nevertheless, Howard Finster
Man of Visions displays many
interesting pieces and is a
worthwhile temporary addition to the
Union. For anyone wanting to pick
up a souvenir, Finster-designed T
shirts, postcards, and stationary are
on sale.
The MAN OF VISIONS show
will remain in the Pond Rooms of
the Michigan Union until October
18. The show is open to the public
from noon until 9 p.m. daily.

FOOD Buys
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1stS.4h ve

Rev HoMad FnTh a k artheas wony a diverse following that ranges from
R..M. and The Talking Heads to Nancy Reagan.
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(Continued from Page 7)1

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