Dizzying visionary: Primative artist Howard Finster created and counseled to stop sinners from speeding to hell

Oct 3 2004

Dizzying visionary: Primative artist Howard Finster created and counseled to stop sinners from speeding to hell

I'm inside the brain of Howard Finster, self-taught sacred artist and self-described ''man of visions.'' It's an alternative universe, where clouds see, angels roam, spaceships zoom, science-fiction castles loom, Elvis lives, Jesus saves and a big-headed, big-grinning preacher named Howard Finster proclaims himself as ''God's flashing red light,'' stopping sinners from speeding on the highway to hell.

Actually, I'm inside ''Howard's Brain,'' a lavishly illustrated chronology of Finster's lives as evangelist, woodworker, bicycle repairman, musician and an ecstatic visitor from outer space who created nearly 50,000 religious works, all numbered, dated and timed. It has a Last Supper clock cabinet and a portrait of Saint George Washington, an apocalyptic album cover for the rock band R.E.M. and a video interview from August 2001, when Finster predicted the fall of tall towers in New York City. ''Howard's Brain'' is the command center for three Finster exhibitions at Lehigh University. One show contains prints and drawings on photographs of clouds that Finster made during a 1986 residency at Lehigh, where he found paradise on Earth. Another show features photographs of Paradise Garden, Finster's three-acre art park/spiritual retreat/tourist haven in Pennville, Ga. The third show spotlights masterpieces, including a wire locomotive and a 12-foot-tall plastic Coke bottle covered in painted people.

The Finster festival is the first major retrospective for the world's most prolific, best-known outsider/primitive/naive artist since he died in October 2001 at age 84. It's curated by Norman Girardot and Ricardo Viera, Lehigh professors and Finster experts, with Diane LaBelle, an art consultant who once directed the Banana Factory. The trio spent 18 months re-creating the amazing maze of a man who believed his brain was God's attic.

Finster's relationship with Lehigh began in 1985, when Viera and Girardot made their first pilgrimage to Paradise Garden. The professors spent their first hours in Finster's studio, where the artist would spend days away from his wife, working from dawn to dawn to dawn in a manic trance, removing his shoes only to wash up. That night the Lehigh teachers witnessed a Southern Gothic floor show. They were floored by Finster's stream-of-conscious monologues about apocalypse, salvation and man as a ceramic god with seven invisible members, including taste and thirst. For six hours he basically never stopped talking. Not when he was painting. Not when he was urinating in the woods. Not when he was spooning instant coffee into his mouth.

Around 1 a.m., the scene became really surreal. That's when Girardot and Viera met a surprise guest: Michael Stipe, lead singer for R.E.M. Stipe was there to greet Finster, his friend and fellow Georgian, and to meditate in Paradise Garden, where his band recorded a video for ''Radio Free Europe.'' The two-day stay convinced Girardot and Viera they just had to bring Finster to Bethlehem. Viera, director/curator of Lehigh's galleries and museum operations, considered Finster a Baptist performance artist akin to Afro-Cuban voodoo/santeria ritualists. Girardot, a professor of comparative religion, considered him a ''tinkerer-shaman-trickster,'' a baptized-in-the-Lord's-blood version of Chinese Taoists, his academic specialty. Girardot knew he was on the right path when he first entered Paradise Garden and saw dozens of decorated gourds that Finster, like ancient oriental mystics, had turned into talismans.

The Lehigh professors enticed Finster to visit Lehigh by appealing to his comfort. They brought four of his grandsons as chaperones, to help the 70-year-old rural Southerner adjust to the foreign North, where people let squirrels run free instead of shooting them for dinner. Viera and Girardot also massaged Finster's ego. They mounted the largest solo exhibition to date for an artist who was surfing his first big wave of fame. In the previous three years Finster had participated in the Venice Bienniale, sung on ''The Tonight Show'' with Johnny Carson and painted the album cover for Talking Heads' ''Little Creatures.'' And, oh yes, he had been visited for the first time by Elvis Presley's ghost.

During his Lehigh residency Finster displayed the sort of boiling passion that made him declare: ''I have more strength than any human. I lose more sleep than presidents and emperors.'' He created painted cutouts, drawings, prints and a T-shirt image with portraits of his grandchildren. He led a community painting marathon. He transformed a lecture into a sermon by drawing faces on a smudged chalkboard. He gave banjo lessons and performances; one photo at Lehigh shows him on one knee, eyes closed in rapture, not worrying about mussing up a very blue, very cool suit. Finster celebrated his residency in a painted cutout included in ''Howard's Brain.'' His Bethlehem hosts, he insisted, ''have kept me in a heaven on earth all these presus hours … ''

Girardot and Viera kept collaborating with Finster as he became a sanctified hero in the booming self-taught/visionary art movement of the late '80s and early '90s. They gave him his first computer for making art; his first computer work is part of ''Howard's Brain.'' They invited him to bless the opening of Lehigh's Zoellner Arts Center. And they continued to make pilgrimages to Paradise Garden. Viera painted chairs with Michael Stipe. Girardot built a concrete shrine loaded with broken plates, faces, gourds and Lehigh pennants. Both professors photographed the park as a fantastic work-in-progress built by an outsider with outsiders' gifts.

The Bethlehem show has their pictures of a Cadillac slathered in biblical messages, a casket topped by a painted angel and a 40-foot-high chapel that resembles a lopsided wooden wedding cake that might have been designed by a crazy Italian Renaissance architect. Even though Finster liked Viera and Girardot, he couldn't quite figure out who or where they were. He called Norman ''Normando'' and Ricardo ''Lecordo.'' Some times he thought they worked at Lee High School, named for Gen. Robert E. Lee. Other times he thought their institution was founded by Lee Iacocca, Lehigh alumnus and automobile visionary.

Lehigh helped make a scholarly deity out of Finster, a sixth-grade graduate who admitted that his critics dismissed him as ''a garbage collector.'' Finster, in turn, helped make Lehigh a center for artists who use raw materials to create raw visions. Over 18 years the school has hosted residencies by other colorful, spiritual recyclers; in 2000 Viera and Girardot challenged four of them to create installations that visualized the new millennium. Girardot, Viera and LaBelle have extended this tradition by turning Lehigh into Finsterville. Girardot and LaBelle, who are married, traveled an estimated 10,000 miles in search of works that are historic, remarkable or just plain fascinating. They picked not only a wire locomotive made for Paradise Garden, but a sculpture made of discarded art supplies. Not only wood-burned frames, but wood-burned pictures. Not only a melted television-tube blob, but the burned Plexiglas portraits that Finster had to give up making because the fumes were poisonous.

Using Girardot's leverage as an enthusiastic, earthy scholar, the curators persuaded top Finsterians to join their party. Phyllis Kind, one of Finster's first dealers, lent a painting with multiple visions of herself from age 9. Thomas Scanlin, a Georgia collector and friend, lent the 12-foot Coke bottle that once anchored Paradise Garden. Coke was one of Finster's lifelines. Not only did he drink vats of the stuff, he used glass soda bottles as decorative mortar in a pump house.

The Lehigh trio makes it abundantly clear that Finster's best creation was himself. Here are a few reasons why he was a true work of art: He never met a surface he didn't like. Finster manipulated virtually every thing he touched. He even painted faces on rags used for wiping paint brushes. It's almost as if he considered white space the devil's playground. It's almost as if he created dizzying patterns to mesmerize viewers into visions. He had a brilliant imagination. Who else would put Shakespeare in the same painting as Eli Whitney? Finster believed that both were pivotal inventors. He thought he was God's junkman.

For Finster, rusty tools could be converted into healing sculptures. As the sign says in Paradise Garden: ''I built this park of broken pieces to try to mend a broken world of people who are traveling their last road.'' He was an art shepherd. Finster soothed the pain of Elvis Presley by making him an everyday saint. He painted the rock 'n' roll pioneer as a charismatic gospel leader, not a bloated drug addict or cult martyr. ''I have the feeling that Elvis was supposed to preach the last five years of his life,'' Finster once said. ''Like all of us, he kept putting things off.'' He used art to ease his own troubles. In one painting at Lehigh, Finster defends himself against accusations of greed and adultery. ''Some Body,'' he declares, ''Has Added Me Up Wrong.'' He suffered for our sins.

In work after work, Finster portrays himself carrying the world on his back. ''Howard believed in the importance of suffering for others — to help them acknowledge their own sinfulness and their need for some kind of saving help,'' says Girardot. ''He knew we all need a little help from friends and messiahs.''

While Finster is categorized as a naive artist, he was anything but naive. He created a complete, consistent alternative universe of people and animals, clouds and castles, scenes of doom and salvation. He used religion to protest pollution, racism and nuclear war. His apocalyptic visions are every bit as vivid as those of Brueghel and Bosch. Finster's jigsaw personality is being pieced together by David Fetcho and Susan English Fetcho, producer-directors of the unfinished documentary ''I Can Feel Another Planet in My Soul,'' which will be screened at Lehigh. In July 2001 the husband-and-wife team recorded one of Finster's final interviews, which he called ''my last message to the world.''

Since then they have talked to a host of Finster fans, including photographer Mary Ellen Mark and fashion designer Todd Oldham. According to the Fetchos, everyone gravitated to the same Finster qualities: His energy. His creativity. His generosity. His tolerance. His boundlessness. ''A lot of people expect to find a preacher who's going to blast them out for their sins. But what Howard preached was a better life,'' says David Fetcho. ''He had a vision of peace and harmony that was profound and inspiring. He believed that we should live like the animals. Sure, they'll muss and fuss, but if a black chicken walks into a yard of white chickens, they don't all jump on him.'' ''All the people we've interviewed have this powerful belief that Howard really loved them,'' says Susan Fetcho. ''You know, there's a sign in Paradise Garden that says: 'I Never Met a Person I Never Loved.' Howard just had this sense of unfettered play and compassion. With Howard, people could joke and be accepted and just be real. He may have been some kind of wild and wooly Baptist saint.''

Finster was asked countless times what he would do after he died. One thing he said he wouldn't do in heaven is draw, paint or sculpt. ''All the art that's up there,'' he once told Girardot and Viera, ''God made.'' Girardot believes Finster is living his vow. ''Howard doesn't have to worry about doing any more masterworks because in heaven everything's a masterwork,'' he says. ''He's probably quite relieved; he finally gets to rest. I think he's up there looking down on us, smiling. And probably spooning some sacred coffee directly into his mouth.''

HOWARD FINSTER (1916-2001): REVEALING THE MASTERWORKS and THE FINSTER COSMOLOGY: HOWARD'S BRAIN can be seen through Dec. 15, main gallery, Lehigh University, Zoellner Arts Center, 420 E. Packer Ave., Bethlehem. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. 610-758-3615, www.luag.org.

Geoff Gehman thinks that Caravaggio rocks.

 geoff.gehman@mcall.com 610-820-6516

Copyright 2004, The Morning Call

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