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Luce Foundation Center for American Art

Howard Finster

Howard Finster

(born Valley Head, AL 1916 -- died Rome, GA 2001)

Howard Finster playing the banjo

"I'd rather put one sermon out in art than fifty out of my mouth. The main thing about my art is to have a message. Preaching does very little good. But I find by doing it in art, a man will see it, and the message will be printed on his brain cells." Howard Finster, "Man of Visions," Folklife Annual, 1985

Reverend Howard Finster preached his first sermon when he was just sixteen years old. He traveled around conducting baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and published some of his sermons in local papers in an attempt to reach more people (The New York Times, "Howard Finster," 2001). In the 1960s, Finster started building Paradise Garden, an environmental sculpture made from machine parts, Bible verses, Coca-Cola bottles, and even his son's tonsils. He made his first painting in 1976 after he dipped his finger in white paint and saw a perfect human face on the tip of his finger. When the face told him to "paint sacred art," Finster argued that he didn't know how. He eventually agreed to give it a go and used tractor enamel and plywood to create images of famous people and visions of heaven and hell (Liza Kirwin, "The Reverend Howard Finster," American Art, Summer 2002). He slept in his clothes and only took twenty-minute naps in an attempt to get out all his ideas. By 1995, a newspaper article reported that he was working on his "36,892nd" painting (The New York Times, Howard Finster, 2001).

Image Credits: Originally photographed by Chuck Rosenak. Image is courtesy of the Chuck and Jan Rosenak research material, 1990-1999, in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.