An REM-style pilgrimage to a folk art wonderland
Stay in a cottage with a key to the garden
Calvin and Hobbes are your furry feline docents
Like lots of 80s era music lovers, I learned about folk artist Rev. Howard Finster from album covers.
Two, specifically: REM’s “Reckoning” and the Talking Heads’ “Little Creatures.” Both were created by Reverend Howard Finster, the visionary, preacher and artist. Covers so dense with words and mystery, I spent hours–way too many hours–looking at them. Little did I know that some thirty years later, on a bedazzled bit of backcountry Georgia, I’d get to tease those mysteries out a little bit more.
I was visiting my friend Faith, an artist and creative force in her own right, in Atlanta. I wanted some side trip ideas, and she recommended Paradise Garden in Summerville, GA. In fact she texted it was “sooooo up my alley” with five “o”s. She described it as “pretty fantastic!!!” with no fewer than three exclamation points attached. Each warranted, as it turns out.
Finster died in 2001, but “Paradise Garden” is his legacy: part sculpture garden, part studio, part fundamental religious experience. “A jungle of trinkets soul,” as Faith describes it. Summerville is less than a 2-hr. drive from ATL, just one from Chattanooga, TN. Either way, this is by far one of the most memorable side road trips I’ve ever taken.
Finster, a kind of alt-rock elder, collaborated with lots of bands but most closely with REM; part of the “Radio Free Europe” video was shot in Paradise Garden. The Rev also appeared in a documentary about the rock scene in Athens, called Athens, GA: Inside/Out , all of it helping cement his “outsider artist” fame. Earlier in the week I saw his his work in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
The stuff doesn’t seem quite right against those clean white walls. It’s good to see him recognized in his native Georgia, but Finster always seemed more concerned with saving your soul than winning anyone’s approval. And this was nothing like seeing his art in situ.
Paradise Garden is two blocks off the main drag in Summerville. Left at the “G-String Guitar” shop and halfway between the Church of Christ and the correctional facilities. The sign near the entrance trumpets “Welcome to the Friendship Capial of the World,” and you can see from the road it’s slightly decayed and fully fantastic. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, $5 for students. (Get in free when you stay at the Paradise Garden Cottage, more on that later.) Once inside…I guess this is what it looks like to be called by God to create. A glittering mosaic walkway leads you through the riot. Get up close to see details in the towering sculptures made of bike parts, ashtrays, doll parts and all manner of hodgepodgery. 2-D artworks, a Cadillac, and so, so much to read. Sci-fi looking buildings and angels flying overhead.
Climb up the stairs to the chapel of mirrors. Look at you, look at the life you are living, Finster says in his art over and over. (Like I don’t stress about this enough.) The threat of the Lord’s burning rain follows me under blinding blue skies.
From the garden, it was just a few steps across the street to the affiliated Airbnb cottage. When I was there, only one of the two units in the duplex ($130 per night) was in commission. It was cozy, quirky and furnished with the work of Finster and other artists. Donnie the caretaker has worked there since 2013, doing restoration of Finster’s work and overseeing the visitor’s center. He is extremely knowledgeable about all things Finster and the art and music events that still go on today. “Just leave your door open if you want company,” Donnie told me. “Calvin and Hobbes love to hang out with visitors.” And then he handed me my own key to the garden.
It felt somewhat illicit, walking across the street and unlocking that gate while night fell on Paradise Garden. Just me and two big orange tabbies, Calvin and Hobbes, weaving between my ankles on the path as we walked along. The friendly cats sort of “come with the place” as much or as little as you want, and I was grateful for the company.
It was hard to go back to a world where faith isn’t made quite as visible as it was at Paradise Garden. Finster once said he made his art “to mend a broken world.” The world still needs mending, and it still needs visionaries like Howard Finster.