Photos by Drew
I didn’t write about what we did last weekend because I was sick and spent most of the time sleeping and reading and being lazy. It was too boring. But this weekend was completely different—it was sunny the entire time, hot (not complaining yet), and perfect for being outside. So on Saturday we finally made it to Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens, a place I’ve been wanting to see ever since I came across it on Roadside America. It’s around an hour and a half drive northwest of Atlanta, and when we drove up there the only thing I could do was hope and cross my fingers that it would be open. Paradise Gardens has been in the news a bit lately; after 10 years of neglect it’s being restored, and just kicked off its season with a music festival. But when I went to check their website it was down, and so when we made the drive I wasn’t really sure if we were going to get to see it after all.
But we lucked out. When we parked in front of the place there was a woman sitting on the front porch, and she greeted us with a wave, handing us maps and setting us loose into what has to be one of the strangest places I’ve ever been to. Some backstory first: Howard Finster was an Alabama-born preacher-turned-artist who bought a few acres of land in Summerville to create his own little Garden of Eden. He also fixed up bicycles, and one day while working on one he had a vision and realized that his calling was to create sacred art. So he began painting bible verses on wooden signs, building sculptures out of all sorts of found objects, and making a lot of original art, painting everything from Jesus to Elvis to Coke bottles and Delta airplanes. After a while he became something of an outsider art star, becoming friends with Michael Stipe and making album covers for R.E.M. and the Talking Heads. He died in 2001, but as far as I know the place has been open off and on ever since, deteriorating somewhat, but is now undergoing a little renovation.
Based on the pictures I’d seen of it online I knew Paradise Gardens would be strange, but I wasn’t really prepared for just how amazing it would be. There was so much to see that I didn’t know where to look, and even though we spent two hours there I could easily go back and discover so many more things. There were signs and paintings nailed onto buildings, mosaics and painted verses decorating the walking paths, little buildings made of cement and found objects (Coke bottles, photographs, toys, jewelry, mirrors, even a full bottle of pills stuck into the walls), overgrown gardens and dried-out streams. And then a little chapel that held a coffin that I assume held Howard Finster’s ashes—and right next to that a giant wooden Coke bottle, just because. Creepy and fascinating, and like something out of a Flannery O’Connor novel.
The rest of the weekend was good too. On Saturday night we went out with friends, and then Sunday Drew and I did old married people things like go to Home Depot and then back home to work in our yard for a few hours. I never really cared about gardening and planting before, but suddenly I really love it. I keep checking our herb garden every day; I’m so scared I’ll kill something off. Jamie surprised us with a beautiful new cactus terrarium to replace our old (dead) one, and I promised I won’t kill this one off. It’s too good.