Howard Finster's Paradise Garden in Summerville is a major fount of southern folk art.
Photo: Courtesy of Howard Finster's Paradise Garden
Photo: Courtesy of Howard Finster's Paradise Garden

Art for (anything but) plain folk – five folk art havens in the South

I stood not too long ago, agog at the spectacle of Howard Finster's artistic productions at Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia. It is rough, at turns melancholy and exuberant, colorful here, muted there, stony and metal-y and woody and plastic-y and a little unnerving. It shouts religious messages at you and then offers up soothing quieter refrains about love and peace and hope. It is an outpouring of artistic vision captured in almost every kind of natural stuff you can imagine – along with some industrially manufactured items for good measure.

It is one of the quintessential examples of what is commonly called "folk art," though that term is somewhat fluid. Folk art is often distinguished from other art in that it is usually created by artists not formally trained who often use found materials to create it. It's sometimes called outsider art or visionary art. And for many, myself among them, it has a definite affinity with the South.

The South has always had some exceptional folk artistry. Not surprising given the region's history and cultural identities – outsider art tends to be created, though not always, by people in rural communities, by those without an abundance of money, and often by African-Americans.

Tina A. Cox, a Decatur resident, is a longtime ardent folk artist advocate and a pottery artist herself. She's on the Folk Art Society of America Advisory Board and the board of directors for Rev. Howard Finster's Paradise Garden and for the Hudgens Center for the Arts, as well as serving similar capacities in the past with the High Museum of Art and the Woodruff Arts Center. She has always noted and appreciated the richness of folk art in the South.

"For many years, the South has been the honey hole of self-taught and traditional folk art," said Cox. "Whether your interests are with traditional folk art such as quilts, carved canes, face and utilitarian jugs, or southern contemporary artists who are self-taught such as Rev. Howard Finster (Georgia), Jimmy Lee Sudduth (Alabama), Purvis Young (Florida), Bill Traylor (Alabama) or Thornton Dial (Alabama), the South overflowed with undiscovered and discovered talent for the past 50-plus years."

Rev. Howard Finster's Paradise Garden

Untrained but inspired and renowned folk artist Howard Finster created masterpieces out of bric-a-brac, odds 'n' ends, stone work, woodwork, glass pieces, hub caps, rusted tools, various kinds of hardware, lights, drawings, paintings, murals, a painted Cadillac and more – all full of religious reference, aphorisms and fierce, undaunted artistic vision. This almost frenzied creation started out as a sort of tribute to the world's inventors called the Plant Farm Museum but was re-envisioned to become Paradise Garden after a "vision from God" Finster said he received in 1976. The property has several buildings, most wooden, including the former Finster studio and chapel, an old bicycle repair shop, garage, an old wooden church with a round, tiered wedding-cake shape known as the World Folk Art Church and more. The extraordinarily eclectic art consists of a jumble of thousands of artistic visions and sits on a 4-acre property around his home in Summerville, Georgia, close to Trion and only about 10 miles from the Alabama state line in northwest Georgia. It is, almost certainly, unlike anything you've ever seen – and so very worth the seeing.

Paradise Garden, 200 N. Lewis St., Summerville. 706-808-0800,

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

The folk art contraptions of the late Vollis Simpson in Wilson, North Carolina, are a true joy to behold. Colorful, large, mounted on high poles and delightfully noisy on a windy day, Simpson's whirligigs are practically guaranteed to bring a smile and a fond reminiscence. There are bicyclists, airplanes, rocket ships, crosses and circles and all manner of shapes represented in whirligig fashion. Most light up at night to create a flashing, spinning extravaganza. And did I mention they were big? Stout poles, some a good 24 feet tall or taller, supporting massive metal sculptures, some laid out on a long pole extending to the sides. Simpson operated a machine shop for decades in tiny Lucama near Wilson before having an artistic epiphany and beginning to create these spinning whirligigs out of recycled scrap metal parts. They were a hidden secret jewel of folk art at their off-the-beaten-path location; now they are in the larger downtown Wilson. An ongoing project to document, repair and conserve Simpson's whirligigs is underway, however, and The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park features 16 of his most appealing creations. There are a total of 31 whirligigs displayed around town – some at the Wilson Rose Garden, some in Hickory Grove Park and others on downtown street corners. The main whirligig park is still undergoing landscaping work, but that shouldn't deter you from visiting. A museum, tiered outdoor seating and a small campus of supporting buildings are planned for the future.

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, 301 S. Goldsboro St., Wilson. 252-243-8440,

South Carolina Artisans Center

There are some mighty fine folk artists in the Palmetto State and the South Carolina Artisans Center is its official folk art and craft center. The mission of the Center is to "interpret, market, preserve and perpetuate the folk art and fine craftsmanship of South Carolina artisans." They do it well at this enclave of historic buildings near the heart of downtown Walterboro, less than four hours away from Atlanta. About 300 artists are represented here including sculptors, painters, carvers, weavers, glass blowers and more. Some of the most impressive pieces to me are the mahogany canoe hand-crafted by Philip Greene that hangs down from the Center's ceiling and the passel of hand-crafted canoe paddles on the floor. Not everything here would fit my sense of folk art but much of it does and it's all beautifully handmade stuff by exceptional artisans.

South Carolina Artisans Center, 38 Wichman St., Walterboro. 843-549-0011,

Roots Up Gallery

Roots Up Gallery in Savannah is housed in a stately mid-19th century townhouse in the heart of historic downtown Savannah and specializes in southern folk art by both contemporary and legacy artists. Owners Leslie Lovell and Francis Allen, both artists, describe Roots Up as a gallery for self-taught, visionary, folk and outsider art from the South. It features an eclectic mix of artistic media but mostly paintings, pottery, sculpture and jewelry. Roots Up has occasional folk artist meet-and-greets, book signings by authors devoted to folk art and other special events.

Roots Up Gallery, 6 E. Liberty St., Parlor Floor, Savannah. 912-677-2845,

Jeanine Taylor Folk Art

If you're headed to the Sunshine State, or you just want a folk art gallery that specializes in contemporary folk art, then the spacious Jeanine Taylor Folk Art facility in Sanford, about 25 miles north of Orlando, might be just the place for you. This gallery is home to the art of 20-30 self-taught artists, has eight working artist studios and a wide price range among its offerings. Taylor hosts a full schedule of shows, events and educational programs.

Jeanine Taylor Folk Art, 211 East First St., Sanford. 407-323-2774,

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