SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — Dawn was breaking, meaning the summer's oppressive heat and humidity were still a couple hours away. So I grabbed my cottage's "NOT TODAY SATAN" keychain, crossed the street, slipped a little key into the padlock and walked inside.
I had Paradise Garden all to myself. That is the onetime home and workplace of the late Howard Finster, a Baptist minister and prolific, self-taught artist whose works are on display in the Smithsonian and have graced R.E.M. and Talking Heads album covers.
As I was walking down the concrete walkways embedded with tile mosaics, I was immediately greeted by Calvin and Hobbes, the two orange tabbies that roam the grounds.
Up ahead of me was the iconic World's Folk Art Church, the 40-foot-tall, wedding-cake-shaped structure that Finster built and which is now undergoing renovation. Pretty soon I was walking past the massive bicycle sculpture with untold bikes stacked on top of each other.
There was the white Cadillac Finster received as a gift that is, of course, covered with his painted murals. On the side of the shed housing the car, Finster painted in big white letters, "DRUGS WILL SHORTEN YOUR DAYS AND TAKE AWAY YOUR HEALTHY FEELING. YOU DON'T NEED THEM WITHOUT PRESCRIPTION."
There was also the Meditation Chapel with open-arched windows, multiple mounted blocks of hand-painted Bible verses. A white casket, initially intended for Finster's remains but not used for it, sits up front under a beautiful wooden cutout of an angel.
There are Bible verses painted by Finster all over Paradise Garden. He also had his own choice sayings: "TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE BE READY WHEN GOD CALLS," he painted in large block letters on a siding near the entrance. "i NEVER SEEN A PERSON i DIDNT LOVE."
I finally arrived at my favorite spot, a corner of the property with the beautifully restored Mirror House, shining resplendently on stilts. A walk up the stairs to inside of the shimmering structure puts you in another place and another time.
As a legal-affairs reporter, I had driven the 90 miles northwest of Atlanta to cover a hearing later that day at the Chattooga County courthouse. But when I walked the gardens that morning, I felt I was so removed from pandemic life it was exhilarating.
Finster, an evangelist, made his living mending bicycles, TVs and lawn mowers. But one day the minister, then 60, dipped his finger into some white paint while repairing a bicycle tire. In interviews, he said that when he looked at the splotch of paint on his finger, God told him to paint sacred art.
A sign at the longstanding Finster exhibit at Atlanta's High Museum of Art says he was one of the most prolific artists in history. He created 46,991 signed and numbered works of art between 1976 and his death in 2001.
IF YOU GO
Paradise Garden is open to the public 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, $5 for students.
As of now, on Airbnb you can reserve either of the two adjoining suites in the yellow cottage for $131 a night or the blue bungalow for $197 a night, plus occupancy taxes and service fees.
There is plenty of parking, and the condos are easily accessed by entering a combination on a lockbox to get the keys.
For more information about Paradise Garden and Howard Finster, see paradisegardenfoundation.org.
Paradise Garden, just a few blocks off U.S. 27 and encompassing four acres, was his creation. It is filled with concrete walls and mounds embedded with just about any object you can think of, be it a coffee mug, plates, shards of glass, ceramic moldings, plastic toys, sculptures, you name it.
"I built the park because I was commissioned by God," Finster once said. "I started the garden in 1970 about 100 feet into the backyard, built a cement walk and put up a haul shed and started to display the inventions of mankind. My park is a memorial to inventors."
Paradise Garden, which has had about 50,000 visitors over the past decade, decided five years ago to make a guest suite available in a yellow cottage across the street from the main entrance.
Three years ago, the Georgia Department of Economic Development's tourism division gave the nonprofit Paradise Garden Foundation a grant that it used to convert an office into an adjoining suite in the yellow cottage. A year later, the state tourism agency gave Paradise Garden another grant, which it used to build a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow on the other side of the grounds.
The three options, all available on Airbnb, offer an added benefit: free access to the garden grounds, particularly in the mornings and evenings when you could have the place all to yourself. When not rented out, the two suites and bungalow serve as artist residencies.
Each place has its own charm, with attractive artwork, comfortable furniture and distinctive arrangements courtesy of local builder Eddy Willingham and interior designer Summer Loftin of Atlanta.
All Airbnb proceeds benefit the nonprofit Paradise Garden's daily operations, allowing the garden to remain open to the public year-round. (The grounds are closed to the public for maintenance on Mondays, but the suites and bungalow are still available those days.)
My stay in Suite No. 1 was great. The one-bedroom, one-bath has a kitchen that was stocked well enough for me to cook my own meals. The biscotti cookies, mints and nuts that await guests were a nice touch. Offerings of eclectic games and interesting books were also at hand.
What set the place apart were the pieces of art, including a beautiful painted wood cutout of a donkey on the living room wall by an artist who must have adored and emulated Finster. Painted on the blue donkey is the World's Folk Art Church under a starry sky. A painted wood cutout of Loretta Lynn by another artist looked down on me in the bedroom.
Nearby attractions include Cloudland Canyon with its spectacular views and Sloppy Floyd State Park, where you can launch a canoe or kayak for a ride down the scenic Chattooga River. The garden is also close to downtown Summerville, which has a smattering of restaurants and shops.
The Paradise Garden suites and bungalows are often booked on the weekends, but if you plan ahead, there should be no problem making a reservation, said Tina Cox, executive director of the nonprofit foundation.
"If you're looking for something that's a neat experience, this is it," Cox said. "There's really nothing quite like it."
I couldn't agree more. And I'll be back.
Bill Rankin writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.