Finster Fest captures the spirit of revered folk artist Howard Finster

Paradise Garden is setting for two-day festival of self-taught art and music.

Finster Fest is no ordinary art festival. Yes, there will be an artist market, live music, a children’s activity area and food vendors. But it becomes clear when talking to both organizers and participants that honoring the legacy of the late folk artist Howard Finster is the primary mission of the annual event taking place Oct. 9-10 at Paradise Garden in Summerville.

And what a legacy it is. The visionary artist is renowned far beyond the few acres his art environment encompasses in northwest Georgia. The album covers he created for the Talking Heads and R.E.M. are considered classics, and his work is in the permanent collections of most major museums in the country.

After years of having fallen into disrepair, the garden is now maintained and preserved by the nonprofit Paradise Garden Foundation. Just last month significant repairs were completed to the foundation and roof of the World’s Folk Art Church, which will be the recipient of a $2 million capital fundraising campaign next year to further restore the structure. And the garden’s reach is growing. A parcel of land containing the last house Finster lived in at Paradise Garden recently was bought and transformed into the Paradise Garden Art & Learning Center.

“The life lessons Howard Finster learned and taught during his lifetime are so perfect for today’s world,” said Tina Cox, executive director of the Paradise Garden Foundation. “He spoke of peace and love, flexibility, compassion, and I’d like to think that Finster Fest represents that. Finster Fest is our opportunity to showcase Howard Finster’s legacy. Howard was the most popular and most celebrated folk artist for many, many years. And he is still opening doors for his garden and still successful as an artist and a person, even after his death 20 years ago.”

That reverence for Finster extends to the selection process for the invitational artist market. Board member Howard Pousner, who curates the market, says he looks for “originality, unique expression, something that would extend what the Fest offers” when inviting artists to participate, but that’s not all.

“I want folks who know something about Howard Finster and who relate in some way to him and who appreciate that showing at the garden is a great opportunity and special,” said Pousner. “There are a lot of shows and folk art festivals out in the world, particularly in the Southeast, and there are a lot of artists who do a circuit, who are out on the road every weekend in this city and that city. But when they come to Paradise Garden, I want them to appreciate that art history was made here.”

This year the artist market will showcase the work of 54 artists, 10 of whom are appearing at the festival for the first time.

“While we’re proud of how we’ve evolved as a festival that draws notable regional and even national artists, we remain committed to offering opportunities to top artists in the northwest Georgia region,” said Pousner. “About a quarter of our artists this year are from the area that includes Chattooga and Floyd counties.”

Among those first-timers is Jeff Carlisle from Maryville, Tennessee, who takes vintage found objects like a movie reel or a banjo and transforms them with stained glass.

His first exposure to Finster was the artist’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1983. It made a big impression on Carlisle.

“When I watched that, something just clicked. He was so human and so real,” he said. “And he owned that stage with Johnny Carson. That’s what got me to reading and looking into Howard Finster.”

When he got the invitation to be in Finster Fest, Carlisle said he was floored.

“There are artists there that have pieces in museums all over the country. They are fantastic folk artists,” said Carlisle. “I couldn’t believe when Howard Pousner offered me a spot to be a Finster artist. It almost brought a tear to my eye. I was literally speechless.”

Also new this year is Stacie Marshall, a fifth-generation farmer from Chatooga County, who will be selling products made on her cattle farm, including goat’s milk soap, herbal remedies, bath salts, lip balm and teas. She’s also going to bring what she calls “farm treasures” — old tractor gears, crates, plows and quilt squares.

“My farm is very reflective of a lot of farms in the South where one of the ways we’re resourceful is by saving everything, and I think that’s kind of the spirit of Howard,” said Marshall. “That way, people can take those things and make their own creations from them.”

In addition to the artist market, the festival will feature musical performances, including the talents of Mudcat, Roger Alan Wade and Pony Bradshaw. Fawne DeRosia will give a chalking demonstration, self-taught artist Eric Legge will talk about how Finster has inspired him, and Katherine Jentleson, curator of folk and self-taught art at the High Museum, will discuss her book, “Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America.”

And the best part is, it all takes place in Paradise Garden, giving festival-goers the opportunity to admire Finster’s artwork up close.

“While a quiet, contemplative visit to Howard’s folk art environment is enjoyable most days of the year, we love having the garden overflowing with folk art and other art and crafts, music, wafting barbecue smoke and, importantly, a huge crowd of art lovers,” said Pousner. “Staff, board members, artists, musicians, food vendors — so many people feel Howard’s spirit during Finster Fest. He encouraged so many to be artists, he wanted people to buy his and their art, he loved an audience and enjoyed playing and listening to music. That’s the definition of Finster Fest.”


FESTIVAL PREVIEW

Finster Fest. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 9-10. $5. Paradise Garden, 200 N. Lewis St., Summerville. Free parking at Walmart on U.S. 27 with complimentary shuttle service. 706-808-0800, www.paradisegardenfoundation.org.