Possible grant to save Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens

‘No County Funds’ To Be Used For Gardens
Thursday, 18 March 2010
The Summerville News
“No county funds will be used to purchase Paradise Gardens,” Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters said about his plans to acquire the nationally-known destination.
The commissioner is banking on the idea of “fixing up,” the late folk artist’s Paradise Gardens as a promotional tool to attract not only tourists, but also catching the eyes of industrialists.
“When you start to build, people take notice,” Winters said. “Building means you are no longer stagnate. It says we are exchanging our complacency for hope.”
Nearly 50 years ago, Finster took a similar step, according to Winters. With a vision, Finster bought his swampy Pennville property and started building on his idea by clearing and draining the land by use of handmade ditches.
“On the wall at the High Museum of Art is a quote from Rev. Finster that says, ‘It was ‘round about the time they had me on the Johnny Carson Show that these people that lived around me stopped laughin’ so hard.’ It is time for us to embrace the legacy that is the Rev. Howard Finster and Paradise Gardens and help to use this internationally known person and site to help draw and build on what we have,” Commissioner Winters said.
Even with Finster’s death, the national exposure has not stopped. Last Friday “USA TODAY” listed Paradise Gardens as one of the “10 great places to go through the looking glass.”
“Both entertainment and inspiration, Paradise Gardens is a chaotic, joyful masterpiece of junk sculptures, rambling buildings and glittery mosaics,” Janet Friedman in the USA Today article stated. Friedman is the founder of eccentricamerica.com.
The spark that’s got Commissioner Winters looking at the possibility is a $70,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). It’s one of three county grants that have received pre-approval.
The county currently is negotiating a purchase price with a non-profit organization that owns Paradise Gardens. If the sellers agree to a higher price, then private funds from art enthusiasts and others will pay for the overage.
“To help explain how this will not be a burden to taxpayers and that no county funds will be used to purchase the site, I would like to detail how this grant came to be and our plans for the site. Sometimes the stars just align on certain projects and this is especially true with this project,” Winters said.
Last November the Finster property was listed on the Georgia Historic Trust’s “Places in Peril.”
“This designation helps to open the site up for different forms of funding, both public and private, if the site was held by a government entity,” Winters said. “. . . The county would just serve as a pass-through for grant funds.”
Preliminary plans include organizing an advisory board to oversee the planning, fundraising and promoting the site. Plans eventually include putting the site on the National Historic Site registry, according to Winters.
The advisory board would lease the site back to the non-profit organization, Paradise Gardens Park and Museum.
“The county would not operate the site,” Winters said.
The non-profit group leasing the property is responsible for the utilities (power, water, etc.) and upkeep, not the county, Winters said.
The commissioner is modeling this purchase and takeover like Blairsville’s project to buy the poet Byron Herbert Reece site in Union County.
“By taking ownership of that site and using the above model, Union County has been able to receive nearly $1 million in grant funds to help promote the legacy of someone who is very important in Georgia literature but is realistically one-one-thousandths as well known as Rev. Finster. The Reece historical site has become a huge tourist draw for their county,” Winters said.
Even before Finster’s death, Paradise Gardens was becoming an attraction to out-of-towners. That may be contributed in part to Finster’s landing deals to create album covers for top music artists such as REM and the Talking Heads.
“My husband and I were married by Howard Finster on Sept. 20, 1991, in Paradise Garden. We have a video of the ceremony somewhere . . . We stood beneath a fig tree while dogs ran around our legs and bees buzzed around our heads. After the ceremony Rev. Finster pulled a fig from the tree, split it in two, and gave me and my husband half the fig each to eat. I felt like I was getting married in the Garden of Eden. One of the best memories of my life,” Nashville’s Tamelyn Feinstein said. “And what a quirky, sweet, fascinating man he was. I was in awe of his visionary talent.”
Currently, Finster’s works are being displayed at the Krannert Art Museum of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Many pieces of Finster’s work are on permanent display at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.