First published: Spring 2013
‘I had a deep feeling about Elvis Presley, a real deep feeling about Elvis. I felt in the last years of his life, he was meant to be a minister of the gospel. That was a feeling that come to me. Because of his publicity, he could have won more souls than anybody in the world. I said to myself that if I ever had the publicity of Elvis Presley, I would use it for the Lord.’
Howard Finster was a big fan of Elvis Presley anzd included him in the pantheon of American heroes he frequently painted, from George Washington to Henry Ford to Eli Whitney. Presley represented a Southern boy who had escaped his humble beginnings, moving from poverty to great wealth and from obscurity to worldwide fame. It was a journey that Finster began identifying with after gaining a modicum of notoriety for his own artwork in the 1970s. ‘God showed me when to become an artist just like he showed Elvis when to make his best strikin’ songs. He was a folk artist of music. He was a folk artist of what he was called for to do in this world. God says many are called but few are chosen.’
Elvis was known as one the most prolific recording artists of all time, while Howard produced more art than Picasso, creating some 46,991 pieces in widely diverse media before his death in 2001 at the age of 84. And, finally, Howard was known for his ‘sacred art,’ and Elvis is remembered for singing ‘sacred music’ (Elvis won his only Grammy award for a gospel album).
It was in this vein that Howard frequently pointed out that Elvis was raised in gospel music and often included a spiritual number in his performances, even when he played in the ‘World’s Capital of Sin,’ Las Vegas. What impressed Finster, who sang and played church music most of his life, was the fact that Presley, despite his fame, never denied or abandoned the music that brought comfort to him in his troubled times.
‘We’ve got a lot of rock and rollers who make millions of dollars and they will sing their songs and never will they mention a song about God. They will never mention nothing about religion. I’ve always loved Elvis. He has enough guts to sing a religious song once in a while.’
In July of 1982, on my way to the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, (with a side trip to the Pentecostal snake-handlers in the West Virginia Hills), I paid a four-day visit to Howard in Pennville, Georgia. On the third day, at about two in the morning, when Howard was painting in his studio and we were shooting the breeze, I asked him if he had ever visited Elvis’ mansion, Graceland. He said he hadn’t, and then started talking rapidly about Elvis and God and what a great guy Elvis was. Without thinking it through, I asked him if he would like to see where Elvis had lived. Howard said ‘Sure, when would we leave?’ Thinking, somewhat confusingly, Memphis couldn’t be that far from Pennville, I said, ‘Right now. We can go in my rental car.’ He yelped, ‘O Boy!’, and added that he could pack some lunches with peanut butter sandwiches, Pringles potato chips and candy bars. We also needed to leave a note for his wife, Pauline, about our whereabouts, so she would not worry.