He remains one of the most famous self-taught, do-it-yourself folk artists, who inadvertently created a mecca by filling his Paradise Garden with tens of thousands of his creations.
Each year, fans of the late Howard Finster’s outsized personality, vision and artwork gather to pay homage and bring home a little piece of quintessential Americana. Artists and art collectors travel from across the country to the two-day Finster Fest at Paradise Garden in his hometown of Summerville in northwest Georgia.
This year’s festival, set for Saturday and Sunday, features an artists market, three stages of acoustic music, children’s art activities, exhibitions, lectures from the likes of musician Abe Partridge and Atlanta artist Black Cat Tips (aka Kyle Brooks) and pimento cheese sandwiches from the Chattooga Garden Club.
Inaugurated in 1991, Finster Fest has paid homage to the Georgia legend and Baptist minister whose images of Elvis, angels, Coca-Cola bottles, cowboys, George Washington and the long-lashed artist himself have wound up in the collections of the Smithsonian and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
Creator of more than 46,000 works of art, Howard Finster has come to define a quirky streak of the South that endeared him to bands like the Talking Heads and R.E.M., which both used his artwork on album covers. Finster died in 2001 at age 84, but his namesake festival and his garden continue his vision.
Tina Cox, the Paradise Garden Foundation executive director, said that Finster Fest has distinguished itself from the legions of other arts festivals with its national reputation. The last five Finster Fests have been sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, enabling artists to exhibit without paying to rent their booths, a rarity in the profit-driven festival circuit.
According to those who knew him, the joy and sense of community that were central to Finster’s ethos also live on in this event.
Artist Peter Loose knew Finster well and has fond memories of a generous, encouraging man.
“He was a very special kind of artist in that he really valued what he did. But he valued what other people around him did more, probably,” said Loose. Finster was the first person to give Loose real validation that his artistic course was the right one.
He remembers the early days of Finster Fest taking place under one big-top tent when it was mostly just friends of the artist.
Loose will have his own exhibition during Finster Fest this year called “Before and After Paradise: The Art of Peter Loose,” on view in the Paradise Garden Museum and Visitor Center through Oct. 30. The exhibition features 20 of the artist’s works: colorful, detailed paintings, with many featuring what Loose describes as “animals I have actually met.”
The focal point of the festival is undoubtedly its market of 71 artists from the Southeast and farther afield, selling textiles, glass, pottery, handicrafts, paintings and sculptures.
The artists for Finster Fest are selected by Howard Pousner, a freelance writer, longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist and Paradise Garden Foundation board member who’s been involved with Finster Fest since 2016.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, artist Kimberly Dawn Crowder’s hyper-colorful paintings will be featured, along with Casper, Wyoming, artist Jim Kopp’s sweetly child-like figures and Dillard, Georgia, artist Eric Legge’s black birds and bunnies, which are part of the High Museum’s collection.
Both Loose and Pousner are especially excited about an artist showing at Finster Fest for the first time: Billy Keith of Louisville, Kentucky, who uses a giant magnifying glass to burn images into wooden panels.
Though the festival has grown since its debut in 1991, Loose said it has hung onto its friendly, unpretentious vibe.
“I always like going back to Summerville. It’s a strangely peaceful place,” said Loose, “and they just have Paradise Garden stuck right in the middle of it. It’s pretty amazing.”
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $5-$10. Free for 12 and under. Paradise Garden, 200 N. Lewis St., Summerville. 706-808-0800, paradisegardenfoundation.org.