IF YOU GO
What: Finster Fest folk art and music festival
Where: Dowdy Park, East Washington Street, Summerville, Ga.
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday
CHATTOOGA COUNTY, Ga. — When Howard Finster had a vision in 1976 to paint sacred art, the retired Baptist minister said God asked him to create 5,000 works to spread the gospel.
He blew right past that goal.
Before Finster died in 2001, he had completed about 47,000 works of art that he dated and numbered with a system of his own devising.
"I think he was your true functional ADD [person with attention deficit disorder]. He wouldn't sleep," said Jordan Poole, executive director of the Paradise Garden Foundation.
Poole himself has been busy these past few weeks getting the four-acre Paradise Garden site ready for this weekend's Finster Fest, an annual folk art and music festival held in Finster's memory.
Changes are in the works this year. For one, the festival will be centered at Dowdy Park in downtown Summerville, with shuttles taking the anticipated 5,000 visitors to and from Paradise Garden, which is in a residential neighborhood that lacks parking. There will be live music both days with Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers headlining at 6 p.m. Saturday.
In another change, tours will start inside Finster's studio, which hasn't been open to the public since Finster died.
"This is where R.E.M. used to come and play the banjo with Howard," Poole said.
Finster designed the cover art for the Georgia band's second album, 1982's Reckoning.
Poole has led work crews, including volunteers and inmates from Hays State Prison next door, in the monumental task of cleaning up the site, a maze of buildings, sculptures and found art. Finster never threw anything away, so workers have hauled away enough stuff to fill several storage units.
"He was your original hoarder," Poole said.
Husband and wife Peter and Mika Muller of Zurich, Switzerland, tagged along last week for a tour. Paradise Garden attracts visitors from all over the world, Poole said.
"I would have divorced him, because I'm very tidy," Mika Muller said, after seeing items on display such as rusty sewing machines salvaged from defunct mills and dozens of dried-out Sharpie pens that Finster saved after using them to draw art.
Chattooga County bought Paradise Garden in February for $125,000, most of which came from a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal panel that assists Appalachian communities with economic development.
In April, Paradise Garden was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Poole, a Summerville native, finds Finster inspiring.
"Here is somebody who took a swamp and, from the poorest dirt, made something that was world known," he said.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.