Outsider poems, a mini-anthology in progress (47): Jonathan Williams on 'Howard Finster, Man of Visions'

[Reprinted from the Jargon Society web site at http://jargonbooks.com/index.html]

The first time I ever heard of Howard Finster was in the pages of Missing Pieces (Georgia Folk Art 1770-1976), that useful catalogue in honor of the American Bi-Centennial issued by the Georgia Council for the Arts and Humanities. I made a note to visit Pennville and see the “Paradise Garden,” which I persisted in calling the “New Improved Garden of Eden,” just to be ornery. It is not my custom to have too much truck with country preachers.

Before getting there, I discussed it all with that bodacious bad-ass, Eddie Owens Martin, St. EOM of the “Land of Pasaquan”— “the Big Injun,” as Howard called him. The Big Injun claimed he said things like: “I mean, I just love to tempt men of the cloth.” He’d get on the phone and say: “Reverend Finster, yessir, good buddy-roe, I’d sure like to get into your pants!” (This is one of those telephone conversations you doubt ever got made.) No matter. The Rev. Finster, a righteous Baptist of northwest Georgia persuasion, talked about “queery boys,” as one might expect. No matter. I never heard him speak unkindly of his great contemporary, Eddie Owens Martin.

Tom Patterson and I got up to eldritch Pennville about 1978 or 1979. A word about Tom. He has transcribed and written two of the best ever as-told-to autobiographies: St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan, Jargon Society, Highlands, NC, 1987; and Howard Finster-- Stranger from Another World, Abbeville Press, New York, 1991. Required reading for those wanting to explore Southern Outsider Art. Today, Tom Patterson is Director of The Nerve Museum. I have no idea what that is. E-mail: tom41052@aol.com.

From that first day in Pennville, Howard continued to say astonishing, beautiful things to Tom and me:

“So it come to me to build a paradise and decorate it with the Bible. I went to the dump and started picking up glass and moulding brick... I just saved everything but money. The Lord’d give me a picture of a night what to do the next day... When I started on it, I wasn’t expecting to excite the whole world... I wanted to put every verse in the Bible in this park. It’s about two acres. I write what I feel God’s word says ... If I have to write it on a refrigerator or down on the walk out of marbles, I write it.”

He is consistent and very clear: “I started going to the dump and collecting old broken dishes and moulding brick. I’d go to the dump and find some of the prettiest things you’ve ever seen. Sometimes twenty-two karat gold dishes would be broke and thrown in there. Most of the stuff here in the garden is junk and not worth anything, and if it is worth anything, I damage it to where it ain’t worth anything ...”

“Whatever you are, that’s what you are. I don’t try to change people around. I don’t try to make my black cat into a white cat. I don’t try to turn my bulldog into a hound.”

“... the longer I live on this planet, the less I can adapt to it ... here on this world there’s nothin’ for me except just a little scatterin’ly joy and fellowship, talkin’ to my friends. And the rest of it is, ‘Howard, your old friend died last night ... They killed 250 of our soldiers ... They put glass in the babies’ food ... They put poison in the sick people’s medicine ...’ They’re talkin’ about World War Three. The world is just an awful place, when you get to studyin’ about it ...”

“... I’m a happy ol’ codger that’s livin’ in a dangerous world.”

“My story is facts and reality, my story is from God, and my story is plain to people who are not plum’ stupid. When I talk to people and they can’t understand me, I figure they’re mentally, no matter who they are, professors or whatever.”

“I reckon I’ve spoken millions of words in my life — billions of ’em. A normal bronchial tube couldn’t never stand all the preachin’ and talkin’ and singin’ and makin’ tapes and everthing that I done.” (I remember Andy Nasisse, sculptor of Athens, Georgia, telling me that one time in Florida he shared a motel room with Howard and that the Man of Visions talked in his sleep all night long! Lawdamercy!)

“Nobody’s ever come to the planet and stayed here.”

Primitive Baptist preachers usually scare me to death, yet the Reverend Howard Finster tickled me to death.

Nothing, of course, is perfect, even in a Paradise Garden. I can’t forget that when Tom Patterson and I were first escorted in the display room to look for something to buy, Howard picked up a piece of melted tv-glass that he had transformed into Noah’s Ark, and he announced fervently: “Now, boys, that’s a piece of what your art expert fellers call your genuine folk art.” Well, to be fair, it cost $75.00 instead of $40.00. It’s not a big deal, but meant that art-snakes were already slithering around, even back there in the days of Jimmy Carter. Nowadays, one hears of aesthetic jungles in which Finsters fetch over $30,000. Genuine folk art, one guesses. He made nearly 40,000 pieces of art-- all of it genuine. But some’s bettern others. Even when it comes to Vermeer.

I remember way back, Howard asked the fatal question: “Brother Williams, just what do you all do?” I had to reply: “Well, Howard, I do a little publishing, but mostly I just make up poems.” It’s like telling a man that you work for the IRS or have terminal leprosy. Anyway, he was nice about it. “Poetry, well I swan, I don’t know much about such as that. But maybe, sometime, you’ll write me one. Make it real easy to understand, and put plenty of rhymes in it so I’ll know where I am.” For his birthday on November 12, 1983, I did just that. Ten lines, and they all rhyme like mad— the same damn rhyme all the way. He seemed to like it:


I thought at first of swarms of bees...
but, sure enough, it was God Who was shooting the breeze,
looking about in this here grove of red trees,
Who said to Howard (down there on his knees),
“Howard, your warm arm, please,
what we need down here is a man who ‘sees’
the glory stored in breeze and trees
and what art there is in words to bring folks ease.”

Swarm for the Lord like bees!
Sing like honey on its knees!

Howard, I don’t know the name of the planet you came from. But, when you go back, I sure hope it offers Classic Coke, red-eye gravy, and okra fried just right by the Duck Woman of Orpliss. You deserve the best!

Howard Finster, visionary artist and preacher, born Valley Head, Alabama, 2 December 1915, died Rome, Georgia, 22 October 2001.

Jonathan Williams, visionary American poet & folklorist, founder of The Jargon Society and Jargon Press, born Asheville, North Carolina, 8 March 1929, died Highlands, North Carolina, 16 March 2008.