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Reviewed by:
  • Howard Finster: Man of Visions
  • Roy R. Behrens
Howard Finster: Man of Visions by Julie Desroberts, Randy Paskal and Dave Carr. 1988. VHS video, 20 min., color. Available from First Run/Icarus Films, 32 Court Street, 21st Floor, Brooklyn NY 11201, U.S.A.. Web: <>.

Howard Finster was a Southern tent preacher and a prolific creator of amateur art. In a mere 25 years, he made more than 46,000 works of "sacred art" (once producing as many as 17 pieces in less than a half hour), some of which he initially placed in his Paradise Gardens Park and Museum, a major tourist attraction in northern Georgia (U.S.A.) He experienced his first religious vision at the age of three: While searching for his mother in "the 'mater patch'" on their farm in Alabama, he saw his dead sister Abby emerge from the clouds. (He was sure of the date, because it took place in the year that he was hit in the head by his mother with "the tater fork.")

Called to preach at age 16, he served as the pastor for nine different fundamentalist churches, while also conducting tent revivals. He retired from the ministry in 1976 and turned instead to making art (along with bicycle and mower repair). This happened in part because one day, while repairing a bicycle, he saw a face in a paint stain on his fingertip. When a voice then told him he should "make sacred art," he demurred, believing that he lacked the training to be a serious artist, to which the voice then responded, "How do you know?"

In this brief and slightly dated film, a somewhat tired Finster talks about his religious and artistic development and the way in which the two tracks merged in the use of his paintings for preaching. This film (which is made up of portions of interviews with Finster and with university art professors, critics, collectors and art dealers) was produced in 1988, by which time the artist had appeared on the Johnny Carson Show, had illustrated album covers for R.E.M. and the Talking Heads, was selling his "Outsider Art" like hotcakes, and was well on his way to becoming as much of a ballyhooed insider in the corrupt New York art world as any aspiring artist would want. In anthropology, sincere observers do their best to guard against their own contamination of the culture that they are observing. Just back from a final publicity jaunt to New York, Finster came down with pneumonia and died in 2001 at age 84. From all appearances, he was a sincere, ambitious and talented man (even gifted)—but he was not, as a scene from this film would suggest, the postmodern era's equivalent of William Blake.

Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0362, U.S.A. E-mail: <>.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review.)



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