First published: Winter 2017
Our involvement with the extraordinary Southern Baptist preacher, visionary artist and self-styled “Stranger from Another World”, the Reverend Howard Finster (1916–2001), comprises more than 40 years of personal acquaintance, multiple publications, curated exhibitions, and an ongoing and often-puzzled fascination with the mystery of the man.
As Finster quite accurately indicated when he declared himself to be a “Stranger from Another World”, no one (including his family as well as inquisitive journalists and professor-types) had “realy never figured” [sic] him out. Finster often said that all of his works, in terms of their imagery, biblical words and personal homiletics, were fundamentally “signs”, “messages from God” or “painted sermons” delivered to him as visionary communications from the Holy Ghost. But the deeper truth was always that these signs, whether found as words in the Bible itself or in Finster’s artworks as images and words, were not always very clear or understandable. And, as we shall see, there were sometimes hidden signs and messages written in a strange language that is a striking example of extreme unintelligibility. A kind of unknown from, as Finster would say, outer space.
Untitled, magic marker on cardboard, 1989, 10 x 15 ins. / 25.4 x 38.1 cm, courtesy of John Turner
We refer to what is a relatively rare kind of “known unknown” displayed on a select number of Finster’s paintings and visionary writings such as his “thought cards” and his self-published Vision of 1982. The known unknown in question is what Finster called the “Unknown Language”, or an undecipherable script made up of semi-abstract glyphs or pictographs.
One of us, John Turner, was the pioneering explorer of these unknown mysteries. He notes that the surface of Finster’s artworks, especially the paintings from the late 1970s until Finster’s death in 2001, were often completely covered with both images and words. The hand-painted words that, Finster claimed, floated through him from God could be anything, from his own personal advice to quotations from the Bible that reinforced the subject matter of his work. Turner says that he saw a large body of Howard's work over the years, and of special interest were the relatively few pieces that contained – tightly hidden in the margins, or lost in the sea of words – a script or a succession of strange markings.
Resembling hieroglyphics, the markings remained a total mystery, until one day when Turner had the opportunity to ask Finster about them. Taken aback with this inquiry, Finster told him in hushed tones that those figures were part of the “Unknown Language”, something he received in a late night vision, which he promptly highlighted in a small painting. He went on to say that he was confused and curious as to what the markings meant and had put some time away “to study them”. Looking through the Bible, Finster came across 1 Corinthians 14:2 (King James Version): “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.” Finster understood that verse to mean that if you spiritually received something you didn't understand, it wasn't directed to you and as a result there was a large potential for you to misinterpret those signs, which could lead to grave consequences. He said he was afraid of that biblical warning and decided “not to fool with them again.”
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #96