"a new world is coming down from on high"


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.


  1. What amazes me as I tend my own garden is just how much is involved in successfully bringing food forth from the soil. It's amazing we've grown to 6 billion plus as a species. I can't even get a bean plant to behave. BTW, have you read The Last Folk Hero?

  2. yeah. i hope i can bring ANY of it to term. ive done pretty well with my perennial garden in ATL, but theres no deers rabbits or bears...or nephews. no i havent read the last folk hero- have you? should i?

  3. Hear ya. I can grow flowers. Tomatoes are another story. Last Folk Hero is about Bill Arnett and the controversy over whether he is/isn't an exploiter of Outsider Artists. Also, Czar, who posts on my blog, is in the book. He was once quite tight with the Arnetts.

  4. i kind of know bill arnett -not well. i met lonnie holley through him and hired him to work with me on a project when i was at the HMA. i remember arnetts house filled with thorton dial paintings and labrador retrievers. did you ever see that 60 minutes piece on arnett?

  5. whoa--that preacher man is straight outa Flannery O'Connor!

  6. Dude you had a road map to your life? Where'd you get it? The one I had for me is seriously outdated.

  7. Lovely writing. I agree with whomever said you write differently while pursuing your paths at Chickory.

    Like you, I am trying to winnow my way in this new
    falling down world . I suspect your instinctive move toward things natural and sustainable is the better path.

    I have visions of you at the Saturday market crowds selling sweet little bouquets, bean tee-pees from the forests, some veggies and berries, some eggs
    ( one day) and of course, great art.

    I am thinking I am looking forward to the art you will surely conceive from your forest finds. I bet more than bean tee-pees will be emerging.

    I , for one, will find it encouraging to learn if it is indeed possible to maintain oneself by a return to this simple exchange,

    Bravo! for declining to be a slacker farmer.

  8. I'm thinking of the fate of a man that saw his thumbprint and decided to make "sacred art." He was taken up by the commercial world and sacrificed.
    Seems to be an echo there.

  9. tres fascinating and inspiring ... as all my stops here seem to be. Hoe On ! we'll look forward to the photos of the Queendom la Jardin much love from les Gang

  10. aunty: very much so! he wouldve been a perfect character.

    shamu: dude, no. i never had one. i only thought i did. now i know i dont. i do have plans for this afternoon after that everything else is subject to change and/or review.

    fishy: from your vision to Gods hand! I'll start going up the the FM at the end of may - i will be selling arty things though. i HOPE i can add to that flowers later this summer. food? i have no confidence. lets see what happens...and thanks. trusting instinct. its the smart thing to do.

    gnome: what a great comment. i hadnt even considered that and of course you are right on. it was really sad to see the family make these xeroxed copies of the originals and glue them to wood cut em out and sell them like they were the real deal. then the nephew started painting just like the great one -and daughter took the garden and turned it into a tourist trap. with "donate" buttons all over the hideous webpage

    susan: ha! lets hope i have something good to show. even serfdom this first year would be a good thing ;-) love to all the creatures and you!

  11. I remember looking over the gate into what turned out to be an animal sanctuary on the Island and saw your face take in the hand made wood fences, the broken paths, the life that existed within that small place. I would like to think you are creating a similar sanctuary for yourself.... you have sacrificed for this time in your mountain and it makes me dizzy-happy to know you reveling in its creation.. that it's going to give you more than just food and flowers.

    Have you read ANIMAL,VEGETABLE,MIRACLE:A YEAR OF FOOD LIFE by Barbara Kingsolver? I'll send you my copy.

  12. I totally get you and what you are doing. My grandparents owned a farm in Indiana and I have some of my Grandfathers things (an old horse shoe, a railroad tie,a pair of antique sheers made from a single piece of steel, and an old tin funnel- all rusted and all with a story)- and these things remind me of an era when people had to make the things they needed (and wanted- including art) and nothing was ever thrown away.

    I have always been like that, but didn't know why until this spring.
    Except for the plants I bought- I spent nothing to create my garden space...everything I needed was already there, or could be created.

    One part of my yard- which is full of debris from a fallen tree is going to have a sign which reads
    "Hell~ Open all night"


    Hugs and thanks for the stroll in your creation- no doubt alongside the Creator <3

  13. I don't spend near enough time outside in the sunshine and dirt. I think we can begin to take ourselves too seriously, and forget those things that really do nourish us. :) Now all I have to do it learn how to grow something besides tomatoes and sunflowers. So far, that has been about it!

  14. I have always stopped by your blog at just the right time, this one being no different than the rest.
    I have always loved Finster and his work and admire and love folk art of any type. When I was last in Eugene oregon I went to a museum showing of folk art from prison where inmates wrote on whatever paper they could find, painting on newspapers, creatively working their ways. Thus we garden and farm the land in much the same way, some with a strict design and others letting the creative flow be part of the design. We are all constantly creating, even the blogging itself adding to the charm of an already wonderful yet sad story of this man who did become the sacrifice.
    Better to do it for yourself and be happy. I sold at street fairs and open studios and loved meeting people but in the end that wasn't me. ETsy works so much better.
    I am so glad you are out and in the soil. So glad its spring for you and all of us!love, Marianne

  15. boxer: hoo boy it will be years before i have a developed place like that! but thank you so much for recognizing that it is hard to leave V in ATL only to return 2 days of each week - my studio my friends - i feel terrible when i see the towers in my rear view knowing i get to escape to solitude and quiet while he stays to slay dragons all day.I would love to read that book - i will look for it in the library, dont send your copy. and thank you so much. you are so good. i hope you do come in november and theres something to see.

    mayden! hahaha! i put my "hell: open all night" on a tree half way down my driveway! i saw your garden area you set up for yourself - you needed it - so many demands on your from every direction! if you want to come over to chickory this summer or fall my home is always open to you. you know the way. ;-)

    i went to my book club last week and the hostess brought out things she had inherited from her grandmother -fancy plates and glassware - seems like everyone is reaching out to their forebears lately.

    as you know i have often said "creativity will be our salvation" and now i have an opportunity to see if i can live that. so good to see you out and about!! i hope you are writing (for yourself) again. xo

    yoborobo: you hit on something critical: taking it all too seriously. i worry about how i am spending my time. why? please post pics of your sunflowers. they are among my favorites. mine are teeny tiny seedling right now.

    marianne: i did the arts festival thing. it would be terrible for me now with these plates holding my neck together. the load in and out. i agree i loved meeting people and playing the role of "artist". i couldnt agree with you more that all of it, from garden, to art, to blogging to photography to making a nice meal to caring for pets and loving your family: its all the same thing.

    i have seen some prison art and even more striking are some of the images from mental institutions. curious visionary works with an odd sense of design and order. do you ever look at "raw vision" magazine? you would love it.

    happy spring to you!!

  16. A very interesting post Chickory dear, I always enjoy your writing.. what wonderful life experiences you have had.

    I wasnt aware of the Reverend Howard Finster, though I think I can recall seeing the "little creatures" album cover at some stage, I like the sky and colours in the other painting of his that you have posted here.

    Nice to see you getting back to nature with your garden, the planting of your own produce in the soil and watching them grow is good for the soul and I'm pleased that it has become a spiritual journey...
    what you put into it of yourself will be fulfilling in so many ways...your new path in life which seems to have chosen you seems to be making you happy and content. :)

    Its amazing what you can make from the bits and pieces you have already, my Dad taught me this, very rewarding making the things that you need.

    Have a wonderful Spring and Summer gardening in that beautiful place.
    <3 love dianne. xoxo

  17. "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."

    I'm seeing hippies. Patchouli-reeking pot-smoking hippies!

  18. breaking some fine china tonight, pal. Just wanted you to know.

  19. Hey Auntie! So I'm moving to Oregon saturday! EEEK! I'm finally coming home.

    There's so much of an update on my blog. Haha you'll have to read up ;) I tried to call, but didn't get through.

    Thought I'd stop by and say hello and I love you and Uncle and all of your animals ;)


  20. It is your gardening work that takes the fruits of the garden where you will have them. To see the vision with you as you rake and dig, smooth and plant of someone else's garden was a good thinking walk.

    Breathe deep the musty soil and make your garden without thought of what will become of it and it will be a fine place in it's own right.

  21. dianne: yes what i took away from the trips to Finsters was this very authentic and unique vision manifest in everything he did from the art to the garden to the writings and his way of evangelization. i think what i am hoping for -for myself- is an integrated life as well -but, obviously my own. i see the sunflowers are coming up. so tiny now but by the end of summer willl tower over me. (i hope) you have a wonderful fall in your beautiful place.

    trolly2k: you got a third of that right.

    boxer: oh boy!! now doesnt that feel good? satisfying sound that CRASH and then the fun of designing with all the shards. i look forward to seeing what you do!

    edith: i read your post. im so pleased for you. i look forward to your photo essays on the return home. love to you sweet pea.

    walking man! good to see you. youre right! part of what i am learning is patience. i want to know what it is going to be; i want to know that im on the right track, i want to know that i am not going to have an epic fail..i need to learn to just let it be what it is. and that is so hard. i liked this "thinking walk" yep. thats exactly what it was.


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