Georgia arts festival honors Howard Finster and the self-taught artists he’s inspired

Paradise Garden Foundation

The bicycle tower at Paradise Garden is in need of repair.

Created by the late self-taught artist Howard Finster and popularized by artists such as R.E.M., the tower has come to symbolize Paradise Garden, the art oasis created in the 1960s by one of the most popular self-taught artists of the 20th century.

The Summerville bicycle-repairman-turned-artist created the bicycle tower using recycled parts from his workshop. Now, the tower is collapsing on itself. Once held together by bailing wire, it is now held upright by a privet that has wrapped itself around the recycled material.

Paradise Garden Foundation board member Howard Pousner said the nonprofit group is hoping to raise money to deconstruct the tower and reconstruct it with more sustainable material. Pousner said restoring the garden is an ongoing initiative because much of the art on the property was created using recycled material.

The foundation hosts a series of fundraisers annually, but Finster Fest, which will be held over Memorial Day weekend, is their biggest source of revenue for renovating Paradise Garden. Last year, more than 1,700 people made the “pilgrimage” to Chattoooga County to attend the festival. More than 50 artists participated. In addition to folk art, the annual festival also features live music, food and more.

CAPTION: The “Love Machine” art car of Kentucky self-taught artists C.M. Laster and Grace Kelly Laster was a focal point at last year’s Finster Fest in Paradise Garden in Summerville. Wearing an orange hat in the foreground is their daughter Ruby Laster, then 11, creating a portrait of a festival-goer. All three Lasters will return for this year’s edition of Finster Fest, May 27-28. SUZY SUE SMITH / Special

The festival returned to the 2.5-acre garden last year following a series of renovations by the foundation. Prior to that, Finster Fest took place in nearby Dowdy Park.

This year, the two-day festival will once again take place at the garden over Memorial Day weekend. With the exception of two participants, the self-taught artists who will set up booths at this year’s festival are from the Southeast.

Self-taught artist Kimberly Dawn Crowder said participating in this year’s festival will serve as a reunion of sorts for her. Not only will the Savannah artist get to see a lot of the artists she’s come to know from other festivals, she’ll have a chance to return to the place that was built by her mentor and friend.

Crowder recalls Finster’s daughter, Beverly, holding her son Noah during a memorial for the late artist more than a decade ago. Noah got his name from people referring to Finster, a spiritual leader to many people, as “the second Noah.”

Artist Mark Cool said he attended his first Finster Fest three years ago after finding out about Finster and the event via Google.

“I was looking for places where people were doing folk art,” he said.

Attending his first Finster Fest, he said, felt like “coming home.”

Visiting Paradise Garden for the first time allowed Cool to see the parallels between his relationship to art and Finster’s. Both he and Finster have backgrounds using their hands to create and repair things. Both of their artwork was also heavily influenced by their spirituality. A former preacher, Finster was inspired to become an artist to spread the word of God beyond delivering sermons at local churches.

Cool said discovering these similarities served as “validation” for his work.

For Crowder, returning to the festival will be “emotional,” but a great time to reflect on what Howard Finster and his work meant to her when she first visited Paradise Garden as a high school student from Chattanooga until now.

“He made something out of nothing and made everyone feel like it’s possible to do what he did,” she said.

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. May 27-28. $5. Paradise Garden, 200 N. Lewis St., Summerville. Facebook.com.

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