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Thursday, March 18, 2010 03:39 pm

Stranger in Paradise

The outsider art of Rev. Howard Finster on exhibit in Champaign


Matthew Arient’s Angel (6927), 1987. Tractor enamel on wood, 24 x 48 inches.

The Rev. Howard Finster produced more than 46,000 pieces of art before he died at age 84 in 2001. He was a man possessed, not by demons, but by the need to create art. He was a self-proclaimed “man of visions” who put his visions into his colorful folk art.

Born in rural Alabama in 1916, Finster was a preacher, tent revivalist, and jack of all trades before he heard a voice in 1976 that told him to “paint sacred art.” He and his family were living near Pennville, Ga., then. He began creating art from found objects and starting work on “Paradise Garden,” a collection of garden trails lined with colorful mosaics and whimsical buildings decorated with art and biblical sayings.

Krannert Art Museum in Champaign has organized “Stranger in Paradise: The works of Reverend Howard Finster,” and it is like nothing you have ever seen. Four rooms at the museum are full of paintings, sculptures, and other curiosities that will capture your imagination. Compared to the work of local artist George Colin, Finster’s art is like Colin on steroids.

Angels, the devil, Elvis and Henry Ford are common themes in Finster’s work, as is the cheetah. At some point walking through the exhibit you may wonder if Finster had a mental illness, but he apparently did not. He was a hard-working man of good will, obsessed with making art, much of it covered with biblical quotations (“sermons in paint”) and his own admonitions to live an upright life.

“All people shall pay for their wrongdoings in this life,” Finster proclaimed, “or the world to come, Hell’s planet. It would be so much better for you to listen to me than to learn for yourself to [sic] late.”

Image of Elvis at Three Years Old (2021), 1981.
Curator Glen C. Davies writes, “His ceaseless creative energy and frantic work ethic achieved the same emotional fervor and visual impact that one might associate with a tent revival meeting.”

Part of his urgency may be from drinking Coca-Cola all day long with spoonfuls of dry instant coffee now and then. It’s a wonder he didn’t die of a heart attack years earlier.

Finster was not a good speller, but some of his writings are just charming and add to the wonder of his art. He painted “I don my part yours is next” on one painting. Another is decorated with “My garding angel is a gift from God and I love her true.”

Johnny Carson hosted Finster on “The Tonight Show” in 1983. The uninhibited Finster was a nonstop talker on the show, regaling Johnny and Ed as he sang, played banjo and rambled all over the stage. You can watch this segment on a tv in the last room of the exhibit. Watching it helps to better understand the artist.

Kudos to the staff at The Krannert for organizing this comprehensive show by one of America’s finest and most prolific primitive artists. Many of the pieces came from the collection of the Arient family of Naperville, who have collected outsider art for some 30 years. Beth and Jim Arient bought their first Finsters in 1980, and developed a strong friendship with Finster and his family.

Champaign artist and guest curator Glen C. Davies, who first visited Finster in 1983, and Krannert Art Museum director Kathleen Harleman visited the Arients in 2007 to see their collection and decided to launch this exhibition.

The Krannert has published a handsome and fascinating hardback book for the exhibit with essays by Davies, Arient, N. J. Girardot, and Phyllis Kind, who showed Finster’s work in her New York gallery.

“Stranger in Paradise” closes March 28 at the Krannert Art Museum, but will travel to six more venues. The Chicago Cultural Center will exhibit the show from July 24-September 26. Krannert Art Museum is open 9-5 Tues-Sat, 9-9 Thurs, and 2-5 Sun. Closed Mon. 333-1881 kam.illinois.edu.

Ginny Lee is a Springfield photographer and writer who wants to be an outsider artist someday.


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