When I lived in Atlanta, I would keep a membership to the High Museum of Art, that way if was ever bored in the city, I could just drop in any time and explore. One of my favorite parts of their collection was the work of Reverend Howard Finster, a preacher and folk artist from Georgia who claimed to have visions from God throughout his life that inspired his artwork. In 1976, while painting a bicycle, he saw an image of a face in the paint on his finger and, at the same time, heard a voice tell him to produce sacred art. He replied that he could not do this because he was not a professional, and the voice responded, “How do you know?”* Since then, Finster has followed this command and produced art that reflects the glory of creation and the messages/visions that he says he receives from God. Despite his lack of training, Finster’s work became incredibly popular (he produced over 46,000 pieces!). He created artwork for the White House, Coca-Cola, and the rock group R.E.M., and showed exhibitions all over the USA—quite a bit for a man who wasn’t a “professional” and didn’t necessarily know what he was doing! His most famous work is what is known as Paradise Gardens in Summerville, GA, a four-acre plot of land that houses much of his work, including a chapel made from recycled materials and decorated with paintings of visions and messages from God.
In all of his work he sought to present a world in which God is active and present, and he invited viewers from all backgrounds to experience what he had experienced in his own relationship with God. What is interesting to me about Finster is not only the way in which he presents God’s presence in the world, but also the fact that he felt such an explicit calling to do so through the visual arts, despite his lack of training. He eventually gave up preaching as a profession (though he still continued to preach whenever an audience was near), believing that his art would not only affect more people, but would also have more of a lasting influence.
In regard to the issue of “calling,” reflecting on Finster’s life and work has made me question what it is for Christian artists to be “professional” as such. If Finster had denied his calling on the basis of his ignorance of art techniques, etc., we would not have the influential body of work we have today. But can anybody be an artist if they feel like it? Do you have to be called by God, and if you are (in whatever way you take that to mean), do you have to become a “professional?” It’s hard to say in general whether one’s being a professional is a help or a hindrance when it comes to creativity, originality, influence, and so on, and I’m certain there is no one hard and fast answer. Whatever our answers, we cannot deny that the work of Finster (and certain others in the folk tradition like him) has been influential for good reason. I don’t believe we should understand him as some sort of archetype, but merely to look at his life and work as one starting point for thinking about the nature of what it means to be called as a Christian artist. Certainly, it will produce fruitful results.
* This story of his initial calling is told on his website www.finster.com