Some say Howard Finster introduced millions to the term Outsider Art. A 2021 article by Far Out magazine even called him the master of the genre.
But who is Howard Finster? And how well known is he?
We dug in to unearth more about this incredible artist.
Let’s jump in!
The Story of Howard Finster
Howard Finster is an art-world icon. He created thousands of detailed, playful, and spiritual pieces in just 25 years. But did you know that this was only one chapter of his life? What did Howard Finster do before becoming an artist?
Howard Finster was born and raised on his family’s farm in rural Alabama. Surrounded by twelve siblings during the first world war and the flu outbreak of 1918, Finster was no stranger to death. He had his first spiritual vision when his sister Abbie Rose died. Although he was only three years old, Finster says his deceased sister told him he would be “a man of visions.”
Finster began preaching by the age of sixteen. As an adult, he worked as a Baptist minister in Fort Payne, Alabama. Noting that his congregation forgot his sermons just minutes after they were delivered, Finster began publishing songs and poetry as a plan b. By the 1930s, he even had a radio show.
But preaching wasn’t Finster’s only passion. Before he found his way into the art world, Finster worked several trades to support his wife and five children. He was a plumber, a bricklayer, and a bicycle repair man.
By the 1960s, Finster purchased land and began building his visionary dream, the Plant Farm Museum. Later called Paradise Garden, this incredible oasis of art is open to the public in Summerville, Georgia.
Is Howard Finster Still Alive?
Howard Finster lived life to its fullest every minute he could, right up to his death on October 22, 2001. Finster’s increasing struggle with rheumatism and various illness slowed his work down towards the end. As a result, his slide show at the American Folk Art Museum in March of 2000 would be his last.
That said, the guy sure had a passion for the simple act of creation. Howard Finster created over 46,000 pieces of art during his 84 years on earth. His website obituary stated, “he is more alive now than he has ever been.”
What Inspired Howard Finster’s Art?
Divine and holy topics inspired Finster. He considered his work sacred visions from God. Although it’s clear that Finster’s life centered around God, painting, his most famous method of delivering the gospel, didn’t start until he was in his 60s!
In 1976, while fixing a bicycle, the white paint on Finster’s thumb looked like a face. A warm feeling came over him as if he had stumbled upon a miracle. He heard a heavenly voice telling him to paint sacred art. Although he initially resisted the calling, he quickly overcame his fears of being untrained in art.
The image of the face that day became known as his ‘resting souls’ figures in his artwork.
What Are Some of Howard Finster’s Art Pieces?
Knowing Howard Finster’s work feels like getting to know the joy of artistic expression. Howard Finster never went to art school. He took no lessons on craft, color, nor those painters who came before him. His pure love for the simple act of making art is easy to see in his pieces.
The Model of a Super Power Plant
This tower of painted TV parts might be one of Finster’s most revered pieces for avid museum-goers. Covered in paint, glitter, and the gospel, The Model of a Super Power Plant, stands almost two feet tall. It’s a happy, adventurous piece that we could explore for hours. There’s so much to see!
You’ll find this 1979 piece of art in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
Much of Finster’s artwork consisted of self-portraits. Some included spiritual text, and some were just his portrait with a smile. Each piece has a childlike, gentle, and self-descriptive quality. Whether or not you believe in his sermon, the art is genuinely welcoming.
With Howard On A Mule, Finster is portrayed in a baby blue suit, riding a mule and smiling. The mule, inscribed with scripture and Finster’s thoughts, stands on a field over a lion. You’ll find this piece and more of Finster’s work at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
Howard Finster loved painting famous people. Not all famous people – just those he thought had a particular connection to the divine. According to Finster, God calls upon many to do his work but chooses very few. His pantheon of paintings included many of these great people.
Abraham Lincoln was a popular subject for him. In his piece entitled Abraham Lincoln, 1989, Lincoln is shown facing left, looking at us with just his right eye, and smiling. You can see his log cabin and the words In God We Trust in his blue suit.
The fascinating thing about this particular Lincoln painting is how much it resembles Elvis Presley! Then again, Finster did love Elvis.
According to Finster, Elvis Presley represented the dream of escaping poverty and obtaining great wealth and glory. The incredibly detailed Baby Elvis shows the singer in a farmer’s hat and overalls. Standing in a vast field with churches, plants, and resting souls, the bright blue sky above suggests hope and angelic protection.
You’ll find Baby Elvis at Skot Foreman Fine Art in San Miguel de Allende, México.
Was Howard Finster on TV?
R.E.M lead singer Michael Stipe met Finster in 1981 when Stipe was in art school. By the time Stipe dropped out of school to devote his time to the band, Finster and Stipe were good friends. R.E.M.’s 1983 video for the hit single Radio Free Europe took place in Finster’s Paradise Garden.
This exposure led to Finster’s interview on the Johnny Carson Show in August 1983.
Soon after, several musicians sought out Finster to create artwork for their album covers. The most famous work is Little Creatures by Talking Heads. Rolling Stone awarded this artwork as Album of The Year in 1985.
Where Can I See Howard Finster’s Art?
As mentioned earlier, you can see Howard Finster’s art in many locations worldwide. But if we had to pick only two, these would be our top choices:
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Over a dozen of Finster’s pieces are on display at the Smithsonian. The museum is not only one of the largest in the world, but it’s also an education and research complex. You can visit several buildings sprawled across its mall in Washington D.C. Exhibits include an air and space museum, natural history, and American art and history.
Howard Finster’s Vision House
The best way to step into the world of Howard Finster is to visit his Paradise Garden and Vision House in Summerville, Georgia. As early as 1941, Finster began building a park to showcase the inventions of mankind. He changed the initial title of Plant Farm Museum to Paradise Garden around 1975.
Planning a full day at the Garden is a great way to explore its many building and sculptures. The Vision House is the one-story house where Finster produced much of his work. Visitors can pay a small fee to have their name written on its walls.
Spreading the Word Joyfully
Howard Finster was a prolific artist, and joy seems to exude from every piece. We think it’s awesome that he created so much art later in his life. What a journey! Whether his work grabs you or not, his life story is impressive.
Do you have a favorite piece by Howard Finster? Tell us in the comments!