“I was a farmer,” Howard said to a friend. “I could plow, cultivate, plant, gather, and preserve; all it took to be a farmer. But I finally quit.”
It wasn’t the last thing that Howard Finster quit on his journey from country preacher to folk artist extraordinaire.
“I done hammer out blacksmith irons with white heat and shoed mules, but I finally quit.
I begin preaching at a store and pastored churches for many years, but finally quit.”
You and I teach our children not to be quitters, but Howard quit everything he tried until he discovered the one thing he was called to do.
“I mounted animals, stuffed and treated them with formality-hide, and even skinned a chicken so small its skin was almost thin as tissue paper. I stuffed him, sew him up and mounted him on a board, standing up and eating corn from a little pan, and had corn in the pan. But I finally quit.”
“I told a few fortunes as a mind reader but I finally quit. I began woodcraft and could do top work as a finisher and was finally employed at a furniture factory, but quit. I became a textile employee and learned to wind thread and work with cotton fabrics, but quit.”
What caused Howard to quit was a vision, which I will tell you about after Howard completes the list of all the things he quit:
“I became a machine fixer in a glove mill and could fix machines, but I quit. I worked in a dye house dyeing cloth; I became a cloth inspector and I quit. I took up carpenter work, built houses, remodeled flooring, tiling, plumbing, and pipe work, but I quit. I begin plumbing and pipe cutting, but I quit. I even made bricks and blocks with my own mold and build my first home, but I quit. I begin lawn mower and bicycle repair for years, but I quit.”
In fact, when Howard saw his vision and closed his bicycle shop, he took all his repair tools and cemented them into a slab of concrete. That is, to say the least, a no-turning-back way of moving forward.
“I begin making clocks by the hundreds and hundreds, but I quit. I begin machine work on cars and could rebuild a motor, but I quit. I used to contract cutting logs from the forest, but I quit. I owned and operated a grocery store for years, but I quit. I begin marrying people and preaching funerals for years and still do.”
Then came the vision that changed his life and brought to the attention of the world the most influential and inspirational folk artist of the last half century; and here I must insert into this captivating “litany of letting go” the equally fascinating testimony of how this jack-of-all-trades from the mountains of north Georgia came to be the superstar of outsider art.
“One day I dipped my finger in some white paint and picked it up, and when I picked it up, it formed a face before I ever seen the face, and I turned it around to look and see if I had too much paint and there were two eyes, a mouth, a nose, and everything—a whole face. My finger looked like a face. All it lacked was a little hair around it. And there was a feeling that come over me, a divine feeling just came over me and said, ‘Paint sacred art.’ I said, ‘Lord, I can’t paint. I don’t have no education in that.’ So then I took a dollar bill out of my wallet and started posing on [copying] the picture of George Washington. Some kids were around watching me work and that was the first time I felt I was an artist.”
From that day until his death last year, Howard Finster painted sacred art, more than 60,000 pieces, all numbered, dated and signed. His testimony to the discovery of his vocation, after years of working here and there, concludes his list of things left behind:
“In 1976, I begin folk art painting and I don’t think I will ever quit because I can do all these things together in folk art painting. I find no end to folk art painting, and I don’t think no artist on earth found the end of art.”
Let me conclude this introduction to the life and legacy of Howard Finster with a five-line piece of his folk poetry:
“When I was 60 years of age God pulled back my hidden page.
He put his brush in my hand to reveal secrets hid from man.
Go Howard and don’t let up;
When you are down I’ll fill your cup.
Make it plain and tell it true and I will hold your crown until you get through.”
On October 23, 2001, at the age of 84, Howard Finster got through and, I am certain, got his crown.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.