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Howard Finster, The Vision of the Unicorn Ghost, 1986
Howard Finster: Prophecy on Plywood
September 14 - October 21, 2017
In 1976, Howard Finster was repairing a bicycle when he noticed a paint smudge on the tip of his finger that had transformed into a human face. The face spoke to him saying, “paint sacred art.”
In 1961, Finster and his family relocated from Trion to Pennville, Georgia, and, with the help of his family, he began creating what would eventually become his largest artwork: the Paradise Garden. According to the artist, “I built the park because I was commissioned by God. (…) My park is a memorial to inventors. The inventors don’t get recognition. They don’t have an Inventor’s Day. To represent them, I’m trying to collect at least one of every invention in the world.”
Many of the structures in Paradise Garden were festooned with painted plywood cutouts. These works were produced at almost mechanical rates and cut from templates designed by the artist. Cutouts from the same template were, of course, identical, but the treatment of the work’s surface was always unique. Layers of ornamentation and writing embellished Finster’s pop-like images. One can read Finster’s sermons, poems, or general advice on a dinosaur tail, encounter a visionary scene on the wing of an archangel, or glimpse an excerpt from the Bible on the jaw of a howling wolf.
Howard Finster produced more than 46,000 works over the course of his lifetime, but his cutouts make up the bulk of his output. Cheap and reasonably weather resistant, plywood offered a flat surface that could endure the seasons, especially when covered in oil-based tractor enamel. When asked about the use of this particular paint, Finster declared it "the best paint in the world." He had painted his tractor with it and after years of heat and humidity, it “still look good.”
Howard Finster’s artistic career developed alongside his activities as a preacher and work as a builder and handyman. His first combinations of words and images, called “chalk work," came in the form of blackboard diagrams that he made while teaching Sunday school. Essential to Finster’s visual language is his intermixing of biblical references and American pop culture. Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley and other iconic celebrities are represented for their accomplishments that are “biblical” in scale, appearing with archangels, dinosaurs, Siamese Twins, and Coca-Cola bottles. Finster saw the existence of these men and objects as fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not here to live a normal life. I’m sent here on a mission. I was fore predestined for this planet, just like Henry Ford. He was sent here to answer the prophecy of Ezekiel. Ezekiel speaks of horseless chariot. Henry Ford come to fulfill that verse.” (excerpt from Oral history interview with Howard Finster, 1984 June 11. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
Finster's life and art were both unwaveringly directed toward bringing people to God, and God's word to the general public. He employed images gleaned from the culture around him and from his frequent visions interchangeably as tools in service of his evangelism.
Howard Finster: Prophecy on Plywood was made possible in part thanks to a grant from VisitLex.