Messages in Art: Exhibit Recalls Life of Howard Finster

Howard Finster ArtThe day of the Reverend Howard Finster’s death, David Leonardis paid him a visit. It was not long after September 11, 2001 and everybody was still a bit shaken. Some words from the prolific preacher-artist, known for his work which has appeared on album covers for REM and the Talking Heads, may have been consoling.

Instead Leonardis arrived to find a grim situation at Finster’s home in Summerville, Georgia.

“Howard said he didn’t feel well, but told me to get some food out of the ice box,” Leonardis recalls. “Death was hovering. You kind of know when someone is about to die. I never got to hear his thoughts on 9-11. He died later that night.”

Leonardis first met Howard Finster in 1990, but had known about his work for some time before. Working as a waiter, Leonardis says he would spend all his money on the artist’s work, buying them over the phone. Following that, Leonardis contacted the artist about making t-shirts, which later sold at the Whitney in New York and High Museum in Atlanta.

Howard Finster People

Following 9-11 and the trip to Georgia, Leonardis decided to move to New York. He says it just seemed to be the thing to do. After about two years, however he found himself back in Georgia and running Paradise Gardens, which is the home of many of Finster’s sculptures and the filming location for the REM video Radio Free Europe.

David Leonardis with the Rev. Howard Finster

If you visit Paradise Gardens today, you will also be able to tour Finster’s home and studio. Now dubbed the Howard Finster Vision House, Leonardis is the homes owner and museum curator. He bought it for $1479.28 in a tax sale.

Finster may not be as well known today if it weren’t for the album cover art, and for the ongoing efforts of David Leonardis. Finster was interested in the album covers because it would allow him to send his messages to millions of music lovers.

“The Rev Howard Finster’s job is to save your soul and my job is to sell you the valuable contemporary folk art,” Leonardis says. “Howard helps me do my job and I help him do his.”

Following a vision from God, Finster began to paint sacred art in 1976. “Then he was discovered and ended up in Life Magazine and in the Little Creatures album,” Leonardis says.

Before that, Finster encountered Michael Stipe, then a college kid in Athens, Georgia. As Leonardis tells it, Stip had been coming to Summerville to visit Finster and would ask him to create some cover art that ended up on the cover of Reckoning.

“If you look at the cover, Michael Stipe drew the snake and Howard filled in the negative space,” Leonardis says. Finster’s work also appears in an REM poster.

The album cover for the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures came about through gallery owner Phyliss Kind, who was friends with David Byrne of the Talking Heads.

It’s been almost ten year’s since the passing of Howard Finster and Leonardis has taken some of Finster’s work on tour. He has a video he shot of his first meeting with Howard Finster that will be shown at an exhibit opening September 15 in Long Grove, Illinois. The exhibit includes more than 200 pieces of art, originals and prints and a recreation of his studio as it was in 2001. The exhibit will then travel to California.

The exhibit runs through January.

More Information





About Art After X

With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, America changed. As hard as it is to minimize that sentiment, the effect of Dallas was even greater. The same year saw the merging of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which had been central to the art scene, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Douglas MacAgy, then the director of DMCA, not only opposed the merger, but also declined to directorship of the combined museum. The regionalist movement which had been strong for decades, was giving way to more of an interest in what was going on nationally, and internationally. Like it or not, Dallas was on the national stage. When the Kennedy’s arrived in Fort Worth, local collectors had decorated a hotel room with internationally-renowned works. While the president and his wife learned a great deal about the ability of Texans to collect major art, there was little they could glean about the local scene in this era-defining city. With this in mind, we have begun a project to look not back at the art scene in Dallas, but foreword from 1963. We are interviewing gallery owners, curators and others involved in the art scene then, but this will be a story told mostly through interviews with artists active in the city from that point into the 1980s. The result will be a book with a video component. We hope you will join us in our journey. The hashtag for the project is #artafterx and the url will point to the latest updates on this weblog.