Paradise Garden: Folk Art Church

Photo: Catie Leary

Turning down a quiet road in the small town of Summerville, Georgia, it doesn't take long before you spot it. Nestled within a neighborhood of humble ranch homes, Paradise Garden — the magnum opus of world-renowned Georgia folk artist Howard Finster — sticks out like a vibrant, loveable and utterly brilliant sore thumb.

Even before your eyes rest on the magnificently wonky spire looming atop the World's Folk Art Church (seen above), Finster’s mosaic cement sculptures and vivid mural pieces (like the flag-wielding angel, below) can be seen from blocks away.

Paradise Garden: Angel

Photo: Catie Leary

So what's the deal with this bastion of eccentric Southern folk art? Well, that’s really up to you.

What’s special about Paradise Garden is that it's so many different things to so many different people: A grand art installation, a bizarre roadside attraction, a hallowed place of worship, an irreplaceable piece of Georgia's history, a pilgrimage site for astute rock music fans, a small town's pride and joy — and for many people, it's all of the above.

Just a few years ago, however, it was also something else: a crumbling, overgrown hazard that had been stripped of nearly all the original Finster artwork that once graced its grounds. What led to the disheartening deterioration of this special place, and what events set it on its current path of restoration and preservation?

Mirror house and mosaic garden at Paradise Garden

Photo: Catie Leary

Reverend Howard Finster is widely hailed as the "grandfather of modern folk art," and for good reason — he only started making art after the age of 59.

A photo of a picture of Howard FinsterBorn in 1916, Finster spent the first half of his life in northeastern Alabama working as a born-again Baptist preacher and bicycle mechanic. He later moved across the border to Georgia, where he eventually opened Paradise Garden.

Originally known as the Plant Farm Museum, Paradise Garden came about in the early 1960s as an outlet for Finster to display the wonders of God’s creation and spread the gospel to any travelers who happened to stop in. Inspired by the Garden of Eden, the park features large, hand-built structures like a bible chapel, a hubcap tower, a mirror house, a bicycle tower, a mosaic labyrinth and, of course, the Folk Art Church.

Paradise Garden: Jesus Saves

Photo: Catie Leary

In 1965, Finster retired from preaching to focus his attention on building up the park, and a little over a decade later in 1976, he began creating divinely inspired art after receiving a vision from God.

As Finster explains it, "... one day I was workin' on a patch job on a bicycle, and I was rubbin' some white paint on that patch with this finger here, and I looked at the round tip o' my finger, and there was a human face on it ... then a warm feelin' come over my body, and a voice spoke to me and said, 'Paint sacred art.'"

After this experience, he threw himself into this spiritual quest, churning out scores of paintings, sculptures and murals all created in a style characterized by vibrant colors, flat perspective, and a prolifically intricate inclusion of bible verses and angels.

Welcome to Howard Finster's Paradise Garden

Photo: Catie Leary

It wasn’t long before word got out about all the charismatic outsider art to be found throughout his kooky roadside park. In addition to ample media publicity throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Finster’s work shot to national fame after the Athens, Georgia-based band R.E.M. featured him and his garden in their video for their single, "Radio Free Europe" (see below) and the band Talking Heads commissioned him to design the cover for the 1985 "Little Creatures" album.

Although Finster originally aimed to create just 5,000 pieces of art in response to his spiritual vision, by the time he surpassed that goal in 1985, he knew there was no way he could stop at that point. He continued to make art for the rest of his life. At the time of his death in 2001, he had amassed a staggering portfolio of 46,991 pieces.

Paradise Garden: Howard Finster's car

Photo: Catie Leary

In the years following Finster's passing, a large chunk of the remaining art at Paradise Garden was removed and acquired by private collectors and museums — most prominently for the permanent Folk Art collection at Atlanta's High Museum.

Meanwhile, the garden itself gradually fell into disrepair due to a lack of funding, resources and a clear vision for the future of this unique space. The property passed through various hands and it wasn't until the 2012 formation of the Paradise Garden Foundation that a solid plan materialized to save this important part of Georgia's cultural history.

Paradise Garden: Hubcap pyramid

Photo: Catie Leary

The person at the helm of this intensive restoration project is Jordan Poole, and frankly, there isn't anyone more qualified to lead such an effort.

In addition to being a native of Summerville and the surrounding Chattooga County, Poole is also equipped with a master's degree in historic preservation and ample experience managing restoration projects at George Washington's Mount Vernon and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.

"This project is very important to me because it has so many positive messages about our community to share with the world," Poole tells MNN. "It helps showcase not only the creative power of Howard Finster but also the creativity of this community."

Paradise Garden: Pardon our success

Photo courtesy of Jordan Poole

With funding finally secured and a restoration plan mapped out, Poole and his team dove into their long list of repair projects.

"The entire site was in very bad shape when we began the project in 2012," Poole explains. "Each structure and area of the garden provided [its] own unique set of challenges. It took creative thinking and an understanding of historic preservation philosophy for us [to] revive much of the garden."

Paradise Garden: Digging up ground Paradise Garden: Repairing mosaic sidewalk
Paradise Garden: Cleaning out the mosaic garden Paradise Garden: Building the new museum
Paradise Garden: Fixing mirror house Paradise Garden: Repairing floors

Photos courtesy of Jordan Poole

Nearly three years later, the facility and garden has undergone quite a sprucing. A new addition was added onto the main office to serve as a museum space. Ditches and bridges were installed in the lower-lying areas of the property that are often subject to flooding. Crumbling cement walkways and structures were repaired. The mosaic garden and mirror house have also been restored to their former glory, with whimsical string lighting lighting the paths for nighttime strolls:

Paradise Garden: Cement garden at night

Photo: Catie Leary

The next project in line? Completely restoring the World Folk Art Church, which is the most iconic structure on the property:

Paradise Garden's World Folk Art Church

Photo: Catie Leary

Whenever people visit Paradise Garden, they inevitably ask if they can go up to the top of the church and explore the balcony, but sadly, the integrity of the structure is severely compromised. Poole hopes that once the hurdle of that big repair is jumped, they can move forward with restoring the facade and converting it into a learning center.

Paradise Garden's mosaic garden

Photo: Catie Leary

There's obviously still a lot of work that needs to be completed, but Poole and his team are confident that as long there are people who are curious about the passion and hard work that Howard Finster put into this place, there will always be new faces coming to explore the garden. You can also keep up with the progress on the Paradise Garden Facebook page.

"We want the garden to be as vibrant and authentic as possible, all the while being self sustainable," Poole explains.

Paradise Garden coke bottle Paradise Garden portrait of Howard Finster

Photo: Catie Leary

Given the genial charm and warm personality of Finster, it should come as no surprise to learn that his influence extended far beyond the grounds of the garden. His work has been exhibited internationally and he even appeared on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, but by far, one of the biggest impacts he had was on his local community and fellow artists.

Paradise Garden: Old boot

Photo: Catie Leary

When Finster was alive, he graciously welcomed and fostered the work of fellow artists, and it wasn't uncommon to find these works displayed on the garden's grounds alongside his own. Many of these pieces can still be found in this winding hall of folk art:

Paradise Garden: Hall of art by other artists

Photo: Catie Leary

Inspired in part by Finster's legacy, there are now more than 40 local folk artists and craftsmen in Summerville and the surrounding counties who earn a living off their creative trades.

This humble yet vibrant arts scene is vital to the growth and diversification of Chattooga County, which is currently one of Appalachia's most economically disadvantaged counties. Local residents are hopeful that the continued development of Paradise Garden could solidify the city of Summerville as a world-renowned destination for uniquely Southern cultural tourism.

"Our local community is filled with many local talents steeped in the heritage of traditional crafts," Poole explains. "Our goal is for Paradise Garden to function as a hinge pin to encouraging the arts around us."

Another important component of Summerville's growing cultural tourism industry is the annual Finster Fest, which began in 1992 as "Howard Finster Day," and later evolved into a weekend-long festival featuring live music, folk art, garden tours and many other special events. This year, Finster Fest will take place on May 28-29, 2016, at Paradise Garden.

Paradise Garden's Folk Art Church steeple

Photo: Catie Leary

To encourage more tourists and visiting artists, the team over at Paradise Garden recently opened up an artist cottage, now available to rent through AirBnB.

Paradise Garden: Living room of artist in residence cottage

Photo: Catie Leary

Paradise Garden: Bedroom at artist cottage

Photo courtesy of Paradise Garden/AirBnB

In addition to being professionally decorated and equipped with a fascinating book collection, the cottage also comes with unlimited access to the garden — even at night!

And if you're lucky, you might run into the two resident kitties, who are happy to serve as unofficial tour guides of the gardens.

Paradise Garden's kitties

Photo: Catie Leary

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.