Friday, May 8, 2009
Last weekend, we drove to a far corner of Georgia, near the Alabama border, to check out Paradise Gardens, the creation of outsider artist Howard Finster, a country preacher who transformed his backyard into a jumbled folk art landscape of twisted bicycle frames, hubcap sculptures, stone mosaics and glued-together trash. When I looked online for directions, I discovered that it happened to be the weekend of Finster Fest with artists and bands appearing at Paradise Gardens to benefit the restoration of the large chapel structure on the grounds, which is falling apart.
We got a late start, had a leisurely lunch in Rome, Georgia and arrived as the event was winding down. It wasn’t clear if everyone had left early or if nobody had shown up (there had been a heavy thunderstorm earlier that day). We were thinking that Finster Fest would likely attract a mix of local artists, some bona fide outsider weirdos and perhaps just a sprinkling of hipsters. I wasn’t sure if hipsters were dedicated enough to outsider art to drive that far. In fact, it was almost all hipsters. There was a two person band that was basically the Black Keys, if the Black Keys had no talent whatsoever. Otherwise, there were about 30 people there entirely hipstered out.
In the world of outsider art, which is no longer reclusive and is very much tied in to the rest of the art world, Howard Finster is probably one of the most famous practitioners. He was incredibly prolific, so every outsider art museum has a Finster piece or two. Paradise Gardens was his masterpiece and though it is somewhat in a state of disrepair, it is a very worthy destination for a weekend drive.
The gardens are set in a rural, residential neighborhood, overgrown and with lots of barking dogs, on swampy land with a creek running through it. In the front of the place, there’s a nice gallery of Finster’s work. You can wander in various directions, all of them muddy the day we were there. The land has all sorts of odd structures, shacks, pagodas and the very large chapel, which was in the off-limits, not-safe-to-walk-in area. It’s a pleasant, mosquito-ridden place to amble about with art (created from marbles, sporting equipment, bottle caps, sewing machines, car parts and the like) and religious messages peeking out of every which corner.
We were equally impressed by the town of Summerville, where Paradise Gardens is located. It looks like things in this town began deteriorating in the ‘70s and then time stopped in the ‘80s and nothing much has happened since. Many of the buildings on the main drag are engulfed by vegetation or near collapse or crying out for someone to save them from turning into dust.
One of the highlights of the day was witnessing a man driving a lawn mower down Summerville’s main street. At first, we thought he had just finished cutting the grass, but nope, he drove right up to the front of the Ingles Market, parked his lawn mower right there like it was a bicycle and went into the store. We considered waiting outside to hopefully get a photo of him on his lawnmower and see what he was buying; but thought the better of that and went on our merry way. “Leave the locals alone!” I always say.