This text is generously provided to the Paradise Garden Foundation with express permission by the author, Glen C. Davies and the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was prepared for its 2011-2012 show Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster.
Howard Finster delighted in collecting and displaying his accumulation of odd objects, tools, antiques, and curios. Even as a young man he built a museum to display his collection of American Indian relics and handmade woodwork. Many self-taught artists and visionary builders throughout the country have maintained museum environments—whether it was to attract visitors, entertain neighbors, or to lend legitimacy to their unorthodox creative endeavors. These roadside museums and gardens were a part of Finster’s youth.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous parks, grottos, and roadside rock gardens sprouted up as part of the popular tourist sites that dotted the back roads and resort communities of rural America. Growing up in close proximity to several of these exotic tourist sites and encountering even more on his road trips as a traveling pastor and tent revivalist, Finster was certainly aware of the tourist industry that flowered close to his childhood home in Valley Head, Alabama.
The Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama, for example, includes miniature reconstructions of famous religious sites in the Middle East and Europe. Aspects of this religious theme park, with its small churches and rock encrusted walls and gardens, bear a passing resemblance to Finster’s own attractions in Trion and Pennville. Rock City in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, contains winding trails lined with unusual rock formations, many sporting kitschy names. Another local feature, Rock City Gardens, includes Fairyland Gardens complete with statuary and sculptural elements depicting popular fairytales such as “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.”
Finster’s family vacations often centered on trips to coastal Florida. In route, Finster loved to stop at roadside tourist museums, zoos, and alligator farms. In St. Augustine, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and the Fountain of Youth were family favorites.
Finster felt compelled to celebrate the inventions of mankind and the unique attributes of individuals whom he felt deserving of recognition. In the “Exhibit House” on his property in Trion, Georgia, Finster assembled tools and curiosities that validated his belief in the creative, God-given talents of inventors, scientists, and industry giants. He would later immortalize these subjects in thousands of paintings. In 1961, when his family moved to their new home in Pennville, Finster took with him the nucleus of his museum/garden vision. There he began to construct what many feel was his greatest artistic work: the Plant Farm Museum, known later as Paradise Garden.
“I built the park because I was commissioned by God. I started the Garden in 1970 about one hundred feet into the backyard, built a cement walk and put up a haul shed and started to display the inventions of mankind. 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.”