First published: Summer 2015
One way to examine the nature of the story of Howard Finster (1916–2001) – the simultaneous chaos and order, the fractal patterns, the mythic, and the intertwined religious and artistic – is to look at some of the recurrent themes and images. Then, we can see how they are interrelated and search out their multiple origins in scripture, visionary experience, and all kinds of popular and profane culture.
Finster’s sister Abbie, George Washington, Elvis Presley, the Abrahamic Noah, the Holy Ghost, flying saucers, born-again and out-of-body experiences: all of these people, figures, stories, themes and experiences were sacred signs in Finster’s personal myth. They were portents and omens from beyond.
Emages [sic} of visions of other worlds beyond, 1983, 27.5 X 20.5 ins., 70 x 52 cm
tractor enamel on plexiglass and wood box construction, courtesy Arient Family Collection
As much as he declared himself the Second Noah, Finster also proclaimed that he was fundamentally akin to the primal patriarch of the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament), Abraham the Stranger (Genesis 23:3–4, and the variations throughout the Hebrew scriptures). The prototypical King David is also called a “stranger in the earth” in Psalms 119:19. All three (Finster, Abraham and David) were strangers, sojourners or resident aliens on this planet. At times, Finster’s identity as the “stranger from another world” was even more significant than his prophetic role as a latter-day Noah. As he became increasingly absorbed in spinning his intricate web of stories, it was the theme of the stranger that most defined his identity as an otherworldly painter of sacred art. As the stranger theme was repeated – beginning at the time of his epiphany in the 1970s [when he saw a face on the tip of his finger that said, “Paint sacred art”] and continuing throughout the 1980s – Finster was swept into a vortex of activity and attention that he did not always understand or control.
What he did know was that it was necessary to sustain the enthusiasm – his own and that of his fans – that fueled his growing celebrity and was rooted in the reaction to his impressive charisma and ever-expanding strangeness. The truth may also be that as his identity as God’s sign painter took off in increasingly unpredictable ways; Finster was ever more alienated from himself and his former vocations. On the other hand, Finster seemed to know intuitively that his eccentricity had the appeal and power of attraction and repulsion. Notoriety, even if sometimes negative, was for Finster a sign that people were getting the message.