Review of “Paradise Garden” at the Sarasota Film Festival #SFF2015

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Review by: Rodger Skidmore

Paradise Garden tells the story of Howard Finster, a man not of this world. Not of this world primarily because he has been dead since 2001, but also because he was driven by visions sent to him directly by his God, and that is not the world to which we are accustomed. This film, directed by Ava Leigh Stewart and produced by Ms Stewart and Jeremy Oliver Miller (who also was the cinematographer) takes us to the small town of Summerville, Georgia. 

Rev. Finster started from humble beginnings and became, for over 40 years, a Baptist preacher – with a day job of running a bicycle repair shop. When he got his vision from his God to create art to glorify the love of God he laid down his bicycle repair tools and started, as a self schooled artist, to do just that. You can see that he really did lay down his tools, as he laid them down into concrete, to create a walkway from his house to his studio. 

Often, when you see a documentary about an artist, you just see nice clear photos of their most famous paintings or sculptures and thus save a trip to a number of museums across the country. As an extra benefit, you may also get to see some works of art from collector’s homes. You get that and more here. One reason is that the filmmakers had access to archival footage of the reverend from many years before his death when he actually preached his art. And “preached his art” is exactly the term that applies. Howard Finster produced Folk Art with a capital F. It was simple, direct and powerful, just like his churchly sermons must have been. The exception being that when he orated in a church it was fire and brimstone, but when he drew, painted, cast, built and sculpted his art, it was of acceptance and love for all of humanity. So you not only saw his finished work, you saw him, via old videos, creating it in his home, in his studio, in his garden, on his porch, and from his heart. The words of love and the words of scripture that he preached were also the words in which he encompassed his art. With which he festooned his art. Simply put, he wanted to place, within everyone’s reach, his God’s love …. and for everyone to feel his love, and for everyone to love each other as Finster felt God loved them. His way of doing this was to, in a naïve way, do a painting and over-print it with passages from the bible and from his own inner being.

The general populous may not know Howard Finster’s art now but they did in the late 1970s and early 1980s as he did LP record covers for, or knew, the likes of REM, the Indigo Girls, the B-52s and the Talking Heads. This means that millions of America’s youth from those years had been exposed to his work.Howard Finster died in 2001 (born 1916) and the work that had been displayed at his home, on his walk paths and in his garden, began to deteriorate – to crumble away. In 2011 Chattooga county, Georgia took control of Paradise Garden and, with grant money, began the restoration. One of the first steps in that restoration was for Home Depot to contribute planting to restore the organic parts of the garden along with the labor to do so. In addition a film crew was hired to show what had been done. Jordan Miller, the cinematographer, was on that grew and he and some associates decided that Finster was so gigantic an icon of folk art that they would expand the small commercial film into a full documentary on Finster’s work. Ultimately they had over 180 hours of footage and condensed that down into a two hour film. And finally into an 80 minute film, which is the final cut. As an aside, Jordan Miller’s next project will be a history of vinyl records.

Naïve artists, folk artists or outsiders: Howard Finster was the granddaddy of them all. And the most prolific as well. How prolific? Well, thankfully, Fisnter was obsessive compulsive and numbered his works of art – actually had tally sheets showing the numbers. The final number? Over 40,000 individual works of art. The archival footage shows him taking a rag with which he cleaned his brushes, nailing a piece to a board and drawing a picture on it. Price for this piece of a rag? $100. But he did not sell these works to make money for himself but instead to make money to buy more supplies, so he could produce more works, so that more people would buy them, so that more people could see the words of his God’s love. A man driven, not by inner demons, but by his visions of his love for his God and of his belief that we should love one another as Finister believed that his God loved us.


For a description of every film’s plot, as well as show times, please go to:

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Paradise Garden
Feature | 80 Min
Howard Finster, the grandfather of the Southern Folk Art movement, was a pioneer that showed the world that Art can thrive outside of museums and galleries, in ordinary places and in everyday objects. He took what others might deem trash and turned it into something contemplative. He opened Paradise Garden for the world to enjoy, a true testament that Art comes to life when people are able to interact with it.
Film Info
Genre: Documentary
English Title: Paradise Garden
Category: Documentary Feature
Release Year: 2014
Runtime: 80 minutes
Type of Film: Documentary Feature
Production Country: USA
Original Language: English
Cast/Crew Info
Director: Ava Leigh Stewart
Produced By: Jeremy Oliver Miller
Ava Leigh Stewart
Co-Producer: Orlando Vargas Diaz
Trey LaFave
Screenwriter: Ava Leigh Stewart
Cinematography: Jeremy Oliver Miller
Editing By: Jeremy Oliver Miller
Ava Leigh Stewart
Production Design by: Trey LaFave
Music By: Daniel Collins

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