Messages in Art: Exhibit Recalls Life of Howard Finster

Howard Finster Art

On the 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 were 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 home’s 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 they 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 years 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.

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