Saving a Folk Artist’s Paradise ,Yazzy's at
Friday, July 31, 2009 at 10:00AM
AP in News

Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times
The rundown World’s Folk Art Church in Pennville, Ga., built by the folk artist Howard Finster.

According to the New York Times, To understand how Howard Finster, a Baptist preacher and bicycle repairman, became one of the most notable folk artists in the world, it is worth a visit to where it all started: the tiny white wooden house in this hamlet, tucked into the state’s northwestern corner.

It was in the Howard Finster Vision House, a name it has acquired since his death in 2001, that Mr. Finster said he was directed by God to stop repairing bicycles and paint “sermon art.” And it was here, years later, that he made a “garden of paradise,” a sprawling art environment he lovingly tended for 30 years that many consider to be his greatest work.

In these Paradise Gardens, as they are now called, Mr. Finster salvaged and transformed everyday objects into whimsical statues, mosaics and playhouses. He collected and saved so much junk for his art projects at one point that he had to make a deal to appease his wife, Pauline. She could have the front half of the house and its tidy front porch, if he could have the back of the house and its garden.

Today it is Mr. Finster’s legacy that seems divided, almost along those same boundaries.

The Vision House sits in bittersweet counterpoint to the locked, overgrown gardens behind it. Even as the house is being rebuilt with new walls, floors, fresh paint and a new deck, the World’s Folk Art Church, a chapel with a 16-sided cupola that is the gardens’ signature structure, slumps precariously, and one of its balconies has collapsed.

The state of the gardens is frustrating for David Leonardis, a Chicago art dealer who is restoring the house. Mr. Leonardis, who has been driving from Illinois to Georgia on weekends for the last two years, expressed impatience with the nonprofit group that has been raising money to save the gardens. He wants its director, the Rev. Tommy Littleton, a preacher and real estate investor from Birmingham, Ala., to step aside. Mr. Leonardis tried to buy the gardens in 2005, but Mr. Finster’s family decided to sell the land to Mr. Littleton instead.

“We’ll buy him out for what he put in,” Mr. Leonardis said. “We’ll just get the job done and stop talking about it.”

Mr. Littleton conceded that fund-raising has been difficult. He said the 35 foundations that he approached for help have turned him down. “We’re kind of an upstart organization,” he said. “That’s been one of our struggles, to get a major entity to believe in the project and fund it.”

When Mr. Leonardis bought the house in 2004, for $1,479 at a tax auction, it was in much the same condition as the garden. “You couldn’t see the over the weeds,” he said. Gradually Mr. Leonardis beat back the jungle that had swallowed the house and began restoring it to the way it looked when Mr. Finster lived there in the 1960s. He tore out five layers of carpet and linoleum and ripped the rotting walls back to the studs. Workers removed 10 tons of debris.

Along the way there have been marvelous discoveries. Mr. Leonardis saved and reinstalled the baby-blue kitchen cabinets built by Mr. Finster and adorned with pink flowers cut out of wood. Under the eaves of the back porch, where Mr. Finster had his bicycle repair shop, there’s a small drawing of a mouth, the same slightly crooked, wide smile that Mr. Finster used on all the faces he drew. On a door jamb, in black lettering, calculations reflect the number of paintings he finished from September to October 1977.

The house opened last month as a public museum, with a $5 entrance fee. For $120 a visitor’s name will be written, Finster style, on the house’s exterior. On Sunday, as Mr. Leonardis showed a reporter around the property, he suddenly stopped in his tracks.

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