As i worked on my garden i would get tired and want to cut corners. i would say to myself -many times during the day- "don't get lazy". If i did, i knew it would show later and it would be as disappointing as a weak painting.
i began to realize that the garden is a project that would extend far beyond this spring and would transcend soil sky and water. The garden will in some ways reflect my character and that this solitary work is a kind of spiritual journey. When i built the bean teepees from fallen limbs of poplar i saw my garden structure take on a familiar vibe: that of the southern folk art yard. The rawness and "make-do" imperfection of it pleased me. As i mined rocks out of the soil i stacked them to be used later as edging decorations. I thought about the scarecrow i would make, and how i might use mirrored garlands to discourage creatures from foraging in the garden plot. what kind of whirly gig could i make? what junk do i have laying around that i can use to build some structure into this flat patch of dirt? In this regard i reflected often on the Reverend Howard Finster, maker of sacred art.
Most people know Finster from his painting on the cover of the Talking Head's "Little Creatures" album. In this image you see some typical Finster elements: man (in this case, David Byrne) holding up the world, churches, living clouds, UFO's, cheetahs and snakes and figures in prayerful poses.
I started going up to his fantastical 4 acre Pennville Georgia yard known as "paradise garden" when i was in college. we made pilgrimages to see Finster where he would hold court with his many visitors. The house would have giant portraits of such icons as Elvis, George Washington, Hank Williams, St. John, the Devil, and Jesus hanging on the outside; all would be on the same level -both pop icon and meta-physical figures -for the reverend would say that they could deliver the word of God with equal measure. that there were many roads to the source and that they all lead to the same place.
The garden was the most amazing repurposing of junk i have ever seen: paths made of tools and toys embedded into concrete which might lead to a reflecting pool, a mirrored grotto or a tower of broken bicycles. Inside the mirrored grotto you were asked to reflect on your sins and repent as you studied your face fractured in the reflective shards.
Sheds were covered in scripture and old hubcaps; cut outs of angels and devils reminded one that Jesus was returning -and soon. Of course, soon on God's time is very different than our notion of soon; in other words, possibly not imminent. Old junk cars were decorated with faces of the famous, more scripture and statements of Finsters personal theology. Classic southern bottle trees dotted the landscape which were overshadowed by giant painted coke bottles. You'd look in a bush and see dismembered doll heads, now angels with some kind of junk fabric dress. You can see a lot of photos from Paradise Garden here .
In a way, Finster was kind of like Van Gogh in that he had a notion of being a preacher first. His grandfather had been one, and i recall seeing a photograph of Finster baptizing people in a river in Mentone Alabama. Looking at this flyer he made for a tent revival he was already promising the addition of visual aids :
But the story goes that while he was painting a bike he had repaired, he looked at one of his thumbprints in white paint, and that image told him to "make sacred art". and so he did. he never questioned his worthiness to do so, or even how to begin. in fact, how he did begin was to pull out a dollar bill and paint a portrait of George Washington.
one of the coolest Finster creations was the "World Folk Art Church" which is a white frame church in the round with an interior spiral ramp upward. I was blown away by the thousands of tin pieces that hung from the eaves that turned in the wind flashing light making the church appear to be alive and moving. what a brilliant technique to convey just that: a place where the Word was alive.
Soon the art dealers and museums made him into an icon and things went down hill. he had become the cash cow for an entire family and to fill orders a kind of assembly line was created where shaped figures were cranked out to meet the ever growing collector demand. After his death, family members sold off much of the garden and the better paintings and allowed the High Museum in Atlanta to dismantle parts of Paradise Garden for a gallery space where it appears lifeless and garish out of its intended context.
I thought often of paradise garden and what Reverend Howard Finster had said about "the new world coming down" as i raked and smoothed and dug and planted. The whole world has shifted somehow. Wherever i was going before, im not going there anymore.