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Paradise Garden: New hope for artist Howard Finster's masterpiece

February 10, 2012 |  7:17 am

Finster

The late Rev. Howard Finster, one of the best known American folk artists of the last half-century, always considered his masterwork to be the Paradise Garden behind his house in out-of-the-way Chattooga County, Ga. The nearly four acres of murals, plants, sculptures, biblical visions and curious homemade buildings were the artist's attempt to echo God's work described in the Book of Genesis.

Since Finster's death in 2001, the fantastical site -- at one time a pilgrimage site for artists such as Keith Haring and musicians such as R.E.M. -- has fallen into disrepair. A few years ago, Finster's daughter sold the property to a nonprofit organization headed by a preacher from Alabama; the preacher hoped to raise $350,000 to restore the site but never quite found a way to pull the project off.

Now, however, there is new hope. A new nonprofit called the Paradise Garden Foundation this week announced that Chattooga County had purchased the site for $125,000, assisted by donations from locals and a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal economic development entity.

"Our goal is to save this local, national and internationally renowned art site while creating a sustainable heritage tourism destination to promote our local economy," County Commissioner Jason Winters said in a statement.

The new Paradise Garden Foundation, headed by Jordan H. Poole, the former restoration manager at George Washington's historic Mount Vernon home, is developing a site management plan and will direct a new fundraising campaign for restorations. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is pitching in with an effort to attract tourists.

Much of the art in the garden is long gone, in private collections and museums around the world, but the site in northwest Georgia is still uniquely evocative of the self-taught painter who rocketed from obscurity to national prominence in the 1980s with his idiosyncratic, "visionary" paintings, largely due to his association with R.E.M., arguably that era's preeminent taste-making rock 'n' roll group.

Finster's painting for the Talking Heads' 1985 "Little Creatures" LP won Rolling Stone's award for best album cover in 1985, and his works were displayed at the Venice Biennale.

But art fans knew that the best way to experience Finster's vision was to visit with him in his garden. Poole, in a phone interview Friday, said his goal was to make it a place worth visiting again.

"We want to follow Howard's vision -- and that was to promote an artistic culture in this community," he said.

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-- Richard Fausset in Atlanta

Photo: Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Ga., in 2007. Credit: Erik S. Lesser / Los Angeles Times

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