$900K drive launched to revive Finster’s World's Folk Art Church, other Paradise Garden improvements

The World’s Folk Art Church, the wedding cake-shaped structure that has towered over the Rev. Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden since the early 1980s, has bore witness to myriad improvements to the northwest Georgia folk art environment since Chattooga County purchased it in 2012.

Now, Paradise Garden Foundation leaders believe the time is right for Phase 2 of the revival, including a long-postponed rescue of the garden’s most recognizable landmark.

The nonprofit group recently announced a two-year $900,000 capital campaign to restore the World’s Folk Art Church plus other improvements.

Those include the construction of an outdoor pavilion across the street from the garden’s new visitors center that would host parties, picnics and other events; and the creation of large metal panels to dot the environment that would picture major Finster paintings and sculptures that were sold by the folk artist toward the end of his life, rotted away or went missing over time. The purchase of adjoining parcels for parking and funds for staffing growth would also be covered.

The World’s Folk Art Church, a landmark of the late Rev. Howard Finster’s art environment outside the northwest Georgia town of Summerville, will be restored as the centerpiece of an expansive capital improvement project. A $900,000 fund-raising drive has just been launched. BOB ANDRES / bandres@ajc.com

But the drawing card for funders is expected to be the restoration of the World’s Folk Art Church, which garden executive director Jordan Poole calls “one of the most, if not the most, iconic art environment structures in the country.”

While nearly every other structure on the property outside the county seat of Summerville has been restored to a form close to what it was in its prime, well before the decade of decline that followed Finster’s death in 2001, the fancifully ornate facade of the World’s Folk Art Church has grown more decayed and weather-beaten.

The board of the nonprofit Paradise Garden Foundation, which signed a 50-year, $1 lease with the county to revive and operate the attraction shortly after its purchase, focused the first phase of the ongoing restoration project on a series of smaller (if not small) projects. Those have included the stabilization of the raised, covered-bridge-like Rolling Chair Ramp, the digging out of Mosaic Garden sidewalks under inches of creek mud and the recently completed rebuild of the rotted-out Mirror House.

Work on the World’s Folk Art Church, an abandoned one-story sanctuary that the enterprising folk artist expanded to four levels with the help of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, was limited to adding interior supports to keep the roof from collapsing.

The church, where R.E.M. overnighted while filming a video in Finster's garden,  is currently closed to the public for safety reasons, but the foundation hopes to reopen and adapt it for use in children's educational programs, community events and receptions.

A major lead gift to launch the campaign, typical for such a large undertaking, was not revealed at the Phase 2 announcement during a Paradise Garden Foundation annual membership party.

Poole told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he and board leaders were “working on different partnerships” with foundations and individual donors and acknowledged that $900,000 is ambitious for an attraction in one of the state’s poorest counties.

“But for a national audience, I think it’s a realistic goal to achieve,” Poole said.

The nonprofit did have success securing major grants for Phase 1, including $445,000 from ArtPlace America and $225,000 from the Educational Foundation of America.

“We believe if you build it they will come, and it’s turned out very much that way,” added Poole about Paradise Garden, which attracted 6,000 in 2013 and is experiencing increases this year. “The garden is a cultural asset and we want to keep that momentum going.”

More details on the capital campaign: http://paradisegardenfoundation.org.


Read about  Rev. Howard Finster's prominence in current major group exhibitions at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum and Gwinnett County's  Hudgens Center for the Arts.

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