This news story from Sept 28 will be of interest to those of my friends who accompanied me to Folk Fest 2007:
Old Finster home turned into 'Vision House' museum
House is cut off from disputed Paradise Gardens
By BO EMERSON
The Atlanta Journal-Constituion
Published on: 09/28/2007
PENNVILLE — Howard Finster created at least 48,000 numbered works of art in his 84 years, though some curators think his output was much greater.
He rarely slept through the night, catching catnaps and working at a furious pace, painting, sculpting and enlarging the phantasmagoric landscape that he called Paradise Gardens, an assemblage of bicycle frames, mosaics, cement statues, highly decorated pagodas and found art in his backyard in this tiny town about 90 miles northwest of Atlanta.
Chicago fine art dealer David Leonardis is shown in the gallery of the Howard Finster Vision House, the folk artist's former home in Pennville.
"It was said that he ate coffee, because it was faster than drinking it," said Susan Crawley, associate curator of folk art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
Suddenly embraced by hipster musicians in the 1980s and the art establishment in the 1990s, the sometime country preacher and bicycle repairman became perhaps the most famous folk artist in the world by the time of his death in 2001.
The world hardly knew what to do with Finster when he was alive and seems similarly clueless at handling his legacy.
The newest tribute, the Howard Finster Vision House, a museum devoted to the artist, opens tonight inside the somewhat dilapidated Pennville house where Finster lived and heard a voice tell him to paint sacred art.
The Vision House, created by Chicago art dealer David Leonardis, should be an example of the ongoing influence that Finster has in Georgia arts. But it could also be an example of the conflict and cross purposes that have undermined efforts to celebrate this Georgia legend.
The house is cut off from Paradise Gardens, and the owners of the two properties are separated by chain-link fencing, barbed wire and bitter feelings.
Though ravaged by time and the elements and by the sale of many of its prize sculptures, Paradise Gardens is still the crown jewel of Finster's legacy. Leonardis tried to acquire the art environment two years ago. But Finster's daughter Beverly Finster-Guinn, not fond of Leonardis, passed on his $200,000 bid in favor of a smaller sum from an ordained minister representing a nonprofit organization.
Yet that group hasn't been successful at landing the grant money required to preserve the sprawling four-acre environment.
Finster built his paradise on a swamp, and today the swamp is winning, as exemplified by the dilapidated state of the soaring central structure, a 50-foot birthday cake that Finster called the World's Folk Art Church.
An upper-level balcony sags free, ready to plunge to the ground. Visitors are discouraged from entering.
"It wasn't like that three years ago," says Leonardis, gesturing over the fence at the sagging structure. "It makes my blood boil."
Leonardis, 40, stumbled into the art business in the 1980s when he was a waiter and a collector of Finster art. After buying as many pieces as he could afford, he contacted the artist in 1990 with the idea of making T-shirts bearing Finster's designs. Soon he was creating limited-edition lithographs of Finster paintings and bringing stacks of prints to Georgia for the artist to sign.
"He's our adopted Yankee," said Frances Wilson, married to Finster's grandson Tommy Wilson. The Wilsons and other members of the extended clan have been helping Leonardis with the renovations at the Vision House, itself ready to "collapse into the earth" when Leonardis bought it at a tax auction two years ago.
It had housed two other families after Finster and his wife moved out in 1991, then stood empty for a while.
Leonardis moved 8 tons — yes, tons — of debris out of the house, rewired, plumbed and replaced walls, windows, doors and floors. While the front rooms are spick-and-span, the area behind is still derelict. Gaping holes in the back-room floors reveal the dark, cobwebby basement, where Finster kept count of his artwork with graffiti on the beams.
Leonardis has big plans for the unprepossessing structure. He wants to put in an industrial kitchen, living quarters for an artist's retreat and eventually stage weddings on the quarter-acre lot.
Tonight the Vision House offers what Leonardis calls Phase 1: a museum of Finster prints, with a few originals and some works by children and grandchildren. There is also a gallery with prints for sale.
Tommy Littleton, chairman of the nonprofit Paradise Gardens Park & Museum, hoped to buy Finster's house to reunite it with the art environment out back, but was not aware that the house was being sold for back taxes (Leonardis paid $1,479). "Our attentions were spread pretty thin," said the Birmingham resident.
Littleton said the group could probably stabilize the major structures in the Gardens with a $350,000 grant, but they've been unsuccessful in landing any significant money.
They did raise $5,000 with a silent auction at the recent Folk Fest in Norcross. The money was used for repairs at the Folk Art Church, and there are plans for future fund-raising.
Some Finster loyalists wonder why Atlanta organizations have failed to step in and rescue the Gardens.
Crawley said that's not part of the High's mission. "Rescuing environments outside a museum is not part of the brief of an art museum."
Finster scholar Tom Patterson applauds the High for doing what it could by preserving major pieces removed from the Gardens and installed in a special Finster exhibit at the Midtown museum.
Pennville, Patterson says, is a long way from Atlanta and from the arts organizations with the means to support it.
The Gardens have the additional disadvantage of being built on an earthen sponge, with multiple creeks trickling underneath.
On the other hand, the Gardens embody Finster's philosophy of taking that which is considered useless and turning it into art.
Littleton still marvels at how Finster "turned a swamp into a worldwide tourist attraction."
All it required was 30 years of herculean labor.
Now it remains to be seen whether Littleton's group and Leonardis can match the energy of one diminutive country preacher.