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Howard Finster: Image + Words = God

Selected works from the Collection of Eleanor Dickinson

Legion of Honor

October 7, 2006 - April 8, 2007


Howard Finster was a true American original. Eventually, his art adorned album covers by R.E.M. and the Talking Heads, and even an Absolut vodka ad. The sincerity of his religious beliefs and the joy and energy he brought to his art created a spontaneous and unprecedented outpouring of enthusiasm for his work from average citizens to art world sophisticates. Ultimately, however, the vision that Howard Finster saw so many years before had pointed the way to his artistic destiny in the service of his Lord. This exhibition consists of works from the collection of Finster's friend and fellow artist, Eleanor Dickinson.

"I am Howard Finster a stranger from another world. My father and my mother, my sisters and brothers, my wife, my children, my grandchildren have really never figured me out for my kingdom is not of this world. Only my Father in Heaven knows me on this planet and that's why I have been strong and happy. When my work is finished I will go back to my other world."
-inscription on Howard Finster's painting number "1000 and 48," 1978

The Reverend Howard Finster (1916-2001) joins a long tradition of visionary American artists who worked outside the structure of the fine arts establishment. For his first sixty years, Finster worked at numerous jobs, including traveling preacher in rural Georgia and Alabama. Although he had begun a folk art garden in his back yard called Paradise Gardens in 1961, it was only in 1976 that he received a vision to do sacred art. While rubbing paint on a bicycle, he saw the image of a face on the end of one of his fingers. In this vision, a voice commanded Finster to create sacred art. He replied that he could not because he was not a professional artist. The voice asked him repeatedly, "how do you know?" Howard Finster accepted his calling and promptly took a dollar bill from his billfold and tacked it to a piece of plywood nearby. Using it as a model, he created his first "sacred art" painting as George Washington was one of his childhood idols. He followed this with a burst of extraordinary energy and imagination that resulted in the creation of over 46,000 works of art during the last twenty-five years of his life, which amounts to five works per day. (right: Howard Finster (American, 1916-2001), The Devil's Vice, 1985, Paint on plywood. Collection of Eleanor Dickinson)

Revivalism is an interesting expression of faith and one that informs Finster's art more than any other cultural influence. The spontaneity, energy, and participatory nature of the tent revival is fully present in the bold and direct art of Howard Finster. He saw his art as a vehicle of spreading the Word of the Lord. The vast majority of his works incorporate written religious texts and admonitions that would be read by viewers after being first attracted by his colorful and unconventional art. In that way they serve as religious broadsides linking image and text in the service of God.

Finster's work includes images from apocalyptic visions, angels, devils, and other religious subject matter. What defines Finster is his use of unconventional subject matter to spread his religious message. Presidents from Washington and Lincoln to George H. W. Bush along with the Mona Lisa, Henry Ford and Elvis Presley make appearances in his art. Unconventional subject matter such as Coca-Cola bottles and dinosaurs appear all the better to gain the attention of viewers who would then see, read, and feel the religious totality of Finster's work.

Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

and this book by Howard Finster:

Howard Finster, Stranger from Another World: Man of Visions Now on This Earth, By Howard Finster as told to Tom Patterson / Photography by Roger Manley, Victor Faccinto and others, Published 1989, ISBN: 978-0-89659-902-4. (online book excerpt available from Abbeville Press) (right: catalogue front cover courtesy Abbeville Press)

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