At a recent appraisal clinic in a large Midwestern city, a woman came forward with a carved and painted piece of wood. The material was nothing fancy, merely a strip of plywood. The carver had a naive but sure touch nonetheless, and had skillfully turned the piece of lumberyard scrap into a girl’s face, her features transformed into religious symbols. On the backside of the piece was a Biblical passage and the artist’s name, Rev. Howard Finster. It was worth around $1,500.
Finster (1916-2001) had been a Baptist minister in rural Georgia since 1940. After retiring from full-time preaching in 1965, he put a piece of land he had purchased in Summerville, Ga., to unusual use. Finster began constructing a multi-acre, mixed-media environment called Paradise Gardens as a way of displaying the bounty of God’s creation. It was his first foray into the art world, although he probably didn’t see it as such at the time.
He was a man who claimed to receive divine visions. In 1976 he received a command from the Lord: “Make sacred art.” Unschooled in the arts but familiar with scripture, Finster began producing paintings and sculpture on religious themes. The margins of these works were often filled with written warnings about the coming Judgment, chapter-and-verse quotations from the Bible, and ethical messages, such as calling on the rich to care for those in need. Flat and fanciful and adorned with his own tightly written script, some of Finster’s paintings bore an odd and unintended resemblance to Byzantine icons.
Daniel Boone and Wolf Dogs, #2,604, by Rev. Howard Finster (1916-2001).
Before long, word of Finster’s creations spread beyond Summerville and the Southern Baptist circles he traveled. The rock band R.E.M. filmed a video in Paradise Garden and commissioned a Finster painting for the cover of their album Reckoning (1983). Two years later the Talking Heads tapped Finster for the cover of Little Creatures. Whatever his opinions may have been regarding alternative rock, the retired preacher seized the opportunity to spread the Word. He was never an outsider artist articulating his inner world for an audience of one. Finster’s paintings and sculptures were brightly colored pamphlets, missionary tracts for a world that was losing sight of God.
He was tireless and prolific. By some accounts, Finster produced nearly 50,000 pieces of art before his death. Each completed work was numbered and dated down to the exact time of day he signed it. His body of work includes the found objects he salvaged and transformed into folk art renderings adorned with biblical bidding. Wooden plaques, simplistically carved into the shapes of people, animals, vehicles, structures and bottles, all bore messages of salvation infused with colorful designs. He transformed the surface of an 8-inch-tall aluminum paint can into a palette on which to paint and preach. He often worked a Coke bottle theme into his creations because of its elegant shape and popular appeal. He crafted a small model house made entirely of Coke bottles. He had an affinity for the drink he believed God had made.
Finster’s varied body of work appears at auction with mixed results. Hammer prices range from a September 2004 sale of a mixed-media wood sculpture titled Evangelical Minister for $250 to the March 1998 auction of the wood sculpture Time Waits For Nothing – Be Prepared, selling for $13,200. His oil paintings on panel have sold within a stable range between $1,200 and $6,000 at auction.
Collectors of contemporary folk art undoubtedly appreciate the distinct style and varied form of Finster’s work and had choice bidding on several Finster lots at the Nov. 10 Slotin sale in Gainesville, Ga. The auction includes a strong representation of the artist’s original work. Coincidently, the sale will offer part of the Jonathan Demme collection of outsider art. Perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs, Demme also directed the Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense (1984).
The Slotin sale includes typical Finster themes. A cutout panel, Coca-Cola Bottle, 28 inches high, bears an estimate of $600-$800. The paint-on-mirror piece titled Look At Yourself, 16 inches by 31 inches, has an estimate of $3,000-$5,000. The heavily detailed paint and marker on board, Morris Nile City, 25 inches by 19 inches, carries a $1,000-$2,000 estimate.
A five-piece wood-carved dollhouse, signed Rev. Howard Finster with address, phone number and Jesus Saves on the reverse, is estimated at $1,000-$2,000. Elvis and Santa are there in two separate lots, both paint on cutout board. A small graphite-on-paper sketch, Andrew Jackson, circa 1979, depicts the U.S. president’s portrait with Finster’s message in writing on almost every blank space. It is expected to bring $1,000-$2,000.
A very early work, numbered 426, is titled Showalter. The 9-inch by 9 1/2-inch painting on board depicts a local gospel singer of the time (presumably a man named Showalter) with the robed figure of Jesus standing in the background. The board it was painted on has a faux wood-grain surface, which adds a touch of whimsy to the piece. It’s estimated at $2,000-$4,000.
The highest estimated price among the Finster works ($20,000-$25,000) is the painted wooden panel, Daniel Boone and Wolf Dogs, #2,604. The 48-inch-square image is bold and colorful in its depiction of the folk legend’s head and shoulders, adorned with six wolves swooning around his face, all bearing a kind of benevolent kinship repose. Trees and puffy stylized clouds complete the background. The painting is decorated in the artist’s handmade wood-burned frame.
The market value of many of Finster’s original works has been relatively low, the result in part of his unusually high rate of productivity. Finster remains accessible to folk art collectors of modest means. With the auction at Slotin, new standards of value for his work may be realized.
Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit www.LandmarksGallery.com, or call 800-352-8892.