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The unsung art of the self-taught

“Marilyn Monroe Cut-Out Painting on Wood” by Howard Finster
“Marilyn Monroe Cut-Out Painting on Wood” by Howard Finster
Howard Finster website

Folk art, also known as self-taught art, doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. But the High Museum of Art in Atlanta has been honoring it for a long time with one of the largest collection of untutored art in the world.

And it’s only going to get better. The High Museum just received a $2.5 million gift from Atlanta-based patrons Dan Boone and his late wife Merrie Boone for a full-time curator to expand the collection.

Part of High’s collection is the art of Georgia’s own Howard Finster. When he died in 2001 at age 84, the headline could have read, "Death of a Salesman." The Alabama-born preacher, who drew his sermons on plywood with dime-store paint and Magic Markers, hawked them with phenomenal success.

Although he was an untrained artist with only a sixth-grade education, Finster knew how to survive and succeed as an artist. His work appeared on rock music album covers, in museums and in galleries worldwide. He was featured in Time and Life and on Good Morning America and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He built a kingdom in Georgia, a kind of handmade Graceland he called Paradise Garden, complete with his own museum and chapel that became one of the state’s top ten tourist attractions.

His art career began unexpectedly in the late ‘40s. He had been evangelizing at tent revivals since he was a teenager. The revelation came while he was applying paint to a bicycle with his fingers. A face appeared to him on his soiled thumb telling him to forget preaching and paint sacred art. The calling produced 35,000 paintings, angels, mostly, with messages, such as "Hell is a hell of a place."

Whether you think Finster’s work is heaven-sent or hare-brained, you can‘t say it was bad business. It enabled him to buy a 4-acre tract a few miles from Paradise Garden in an affluent section of Georgia, where he built a brick ranch with a pool and pool house.

The question that goes pleading here is: Why did Finster’s art attract so many fans when other contemporary artists struggle for patronage?

One answer may lie in the known reason for art vandalism. Studies show that art vandals are often ordinary people expressing anger at being excluded from an elite world.

But you don’t have to be art-smart to get Finster’s work. His work never needs explaining.