Restoration work is seen from the Mirror House at Paradise Garden walkway gallery on April, 21, 2015.

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Paradise Garden 2015


* What: Finster Fest 2015
* Activities: art, live music and food
* Where: Howard Finster's Paradise Garden, 200 North Lewis Street, Summerville, Ga.; Dowdy Park, 170 Veterans Memorial Drive Summerville, Ga.; and the back porch of the Couey House, University Street Summerville, Ga.
* When: May 30 and May 31
* Band schedule: The opening act begins at 7 p.m. with Atomic Boogie, then The Strange will play, and finally Chattanooga's The Bohannons are set to headline at 9 p.m. Donnie Davis, Russell Gulley and other acts will be playing throughout the festival at various sites and at the garden.
* Phone: 706-808-0800
* Cost: Free
Source: Howard Finster's Paradise Garden

How did Howard Finster touch your life?

Howard Finster always had something special to tell the visitors who found the time to talk to him:
* "If you want the juiciest blackberries, you have to stick your hand into the bush and risk getting stuck."
* "When the Bible says you shouldn't have long hair, it's talking about ankle-length hair, not shoulder-length hair."
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SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — Just down the street from Hays State Prison, Howard Finster's Paradise Garden stands as a testament to one man's faith and hard work in reckoning with rotting wood and the impermanence of the physical world.

Artists, art lovers, music fans and musicians will descend on Chattooga County on May 30 and May 31 for Finster Fest, a free art and music festival held nearby at Dowdy Park, as part of a campaign to raise money for the garden's preservation.

In addition to tourism dollars, organizers say the restoration has supported more than 70 people in Chattooga county that make their living through the arts, giving those artists, along with two new art galleries in Summerville, more visibility and opportunity.

Finster's garden has long been a place for the arts. He began to build the garden in 1961, slowly creating mixed media sculptures and paintings that drew tourists from around the world. During that time, nature's ability to reclaim the swampy land that Howard Finster transformed during his life have always threatened his work.

Since his death on Oct. 22, 2001, fans have fretted over reports of the garden's decline, holding out hope for the success of preservationists in seeking to save the four-acre spiritual art garden from ruin.

Today, streams that were once clogged with silt can be seen flowing and bubbling through the channels of the garden. Once-buried sidewalks sparkle in the sun thanks to those who uncovered them from the mud.

Chattooga County was the most economically depressed county in Appalachian Georgia about five years ago, which made it eligible for certain federal grants, said Jordan Poole, executive director of Paradise Garden.

To save the garden, a group of Chattooga County residents used federal grant money and matching funds given by the county to purchase the property in January, 2012 and created the Paradise Garden Foundation. They hired architects and advisers, experts in a discipline called "community place-making," and generated a site management plan to outline the fixes that were needed.

"Then we went into uncharted territory, and took a place that had really fallen into rack and ruin, and [brought] it back out of the mud, literally," Poole said. "A lot of the buildings had fallen into disrepair and had sunk into the swamp. We jacked everything up and also uncovered a ton of mosaic pathways and walkways that had been covered by silt from a stream that had been backed up for almost a decade."

For nighttime events, officials added decorative outdoor lighting in the mosaic garden, among other small improvements, said Sylvia Keziah, executive director of the Chattooga County Chamber of Commerce.

"There is now an extensive welcome center with information on Howard Finster and Chattooga County, and quite a bit of his work was rediscovered in the excavation," she said.

Engineer Steven Vias, who works during the day at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, helped devise a plan to use heavy wooden beams to stabilize and reinforce the sinking cupola of the World's Folk Art Chapel, Poole said. Plans are still in the works to raise the church's cupola to its original height and make the building safe using steel structures to bear the weight of the upper floor from the center out, "like a snowshoe," he added.

"There is restoration work to finish with some of the more iconic buildings like the World's Folk Art Chapel in order to provide a more thorough guest experience. I am very excited about the planned work for the Learning Center inside the Chapel," Keziah said.

In its quest to restore the landmark, the group also solicited help from an unlikely source: Hays state State prisoners.

"We were very fortunate early on to have a group of prisoners come to Paradise Garden and work on the project," Poole said. "I believe that if you can't pay people with money, you pay them with something like food. So I always made sure I got these guys some a really good lunch for the hard work they did."


After a year and a half of hard labor, the prisoners and local crews had finished the visitor center and other restoration projects. Despite the tough work, a few of the prisoners told Poole they were grateful to have been involved, he said.

"I think one of the most impactful things for me to hear from a group of guys that you're working with is 'When I get out, I'm bringing my children here so they can see what I worked on, and how proud I am of this place'"

The efforts of those prisoners, along with the funds and work hours contributed by local volunteers, were what enabled organizers to expand the scope of Finster Fest, which began in 1992.

This year, 60 artists have signed up to contribute exhibits, and musical acts will perform on the back porch of a historic cabin called the Couey House. The grand finale is a Tunes on the Track concert, on the back end of the property's historic depot.

"It's going to be a great experience for people to come and wander around Paradise Garden and then take a shuttle to Dowdy Park, see all the artists and possibly even come back and explore the garden some more," Poole said.

Contact staff writer James Karr at