From the Road: Javier Goes to Paradise

July 20, 2015

By: F. Javier Torres, Director of National Grantmaking

Last month, Director of National Grantmaking F. Javier Torres traveled to Georgia to attend a convening hosted by Grantmakers in the Arts. Javier also took some time to visit ArtPlace grantees in the area, including the Paradise Garden project in Summerville, a rehabilitation effort to preserve the home of renowned artist Howard Finster. Collaborative partnerships across local and county government and alongside arts and cultural preservation leaders have led to significant success for this project and rural town, as Javier shares:

Summerville, GA is a textile town where carpet and denim manufacturers make up most of the local industry. Founded in 1848, it is the seat of Chattooga County and is home to 4,534 people who, according to the town website, exhibit warmth, friendliness and helpfulness to their neighbors and visitors. My visit to Summerville thoroughly confirmed this assertion.

As I pulled up to the Paradise Garden parking lot, my eyes were drawn toward a series of large-scale sculptures and colorful installations. “Welcome to Paradise,” I heard, as I was greeted by Jordan Poole, Executive Director of the Paradise Garden Foundation. For the next two hours, Jordan led me on a tour of the remarkably eccentric home of renowned artist Howard Finster. Chattooga County Commissioner Michael Dawson was along for the tour and complemented it with personal childhood anecdotes. Mike recounted stories of visiting as an adult only to discover (and rediscover) new drawings, sculptures, and lessons from Finster’s life’s work. It was Mike’s and Jordan’s combined leadership that prompted the County of Chattooga to purchase the property that had fallen into disrepair in 2011, not long after the economic downturn in 2009.

In many places across the country, the purchase and planned rehabilitation of an artist’s peculiar home may not be a popular political move. With stretched government budgets and increased costs of preservation, it’s often more cost-effective and common to tear down and rebuild an old structure than to asses, rehab, preserve, and repurpose one. Mike knew that with Jordan’s support, who was then working for the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, the revitalization of this lost treasure could be the catalyst for a turnaround of this rural Georgia town.

As my tour came to an end, we were joined by a host of local leaders including Summerville’s Mayor, Harry Harvey. As I spoke with the Mayor and asked what local priorities were for this bustling small town he said, “Infrastructure always comes first!” This was one of the many reasons why Paradise Garden had been so key to strengthening Summerville. Mayor Harvey, Jordan, and Mike credit the national recognition of their ArtPlace grant for providing the opportunity to work with a variety of federal offices. Grants from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have since supported the creation of a sewer system for more than 100 households surrounding Paradise Garden. Driveways are a big priority in Summerville, and as a part of the sewer project, all 100 households also received a new paved driveway.

The reopening of Paradise Garden as a destination in 2013 has led to a number of benefits. Among these was the creation of the successful Finsterfest, a weekend-long festival that invites over 1500 visitors into Paradise Garden for a series of events and celebration. Mike shared that the surge of out-of-towners this year led to a delay in his daily dinner take-out order at a downtown restaurant. But while he waited for his dinner that evening, he grinned knowing what the increased sales would mean for this local family owned business. Following the success of Paradise Garden's rehabilitation, one of the local textile firms spent $250M to expand their plant, adding 400 new jobs as a result of their renewed confidence in the town's potential. These 400 jobs have also contributed to Chattooga County’s unemployment rate being at its lowest in a decade.

As I said my thank yous and goodbyes to my hosts, a Howard Finster quote stuck with me:“I took the pieces you threw away and put them together by night and day, washed by rain, dried by sun; a million pieces all in one.” Through the successful preservation and rehabilitation of what can only be described as “paradise”, these leaders have strengthened their great small town for years to come.

I look forward to watching as they tackle their two next local projects: the rehabilitation of a central structure at Paradise Garden that will open four new floors of galleries and installations designed by Finster, and their Director of Main Street’s plan to expand lodging options downtown by opening a new bed and breakfast. No doubt success will continue to be a part of this dynamic, friendly, and warm small town.