Paradise Garden Revival

Chattooga County, Georgia

Funding Received: 2012
Summerville, GA
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
January 9, 2014

I think that for me it began in the backseat of a car. Looking back, that is my first time experiencing Paradise—Paradise Garden that is. I saw the place first sometime before I was five. My grandmother and great-grandmother lived in the same community of Pennville, and it was a chosen path for some reason to drive by. I remember my dad (who was driving) giving an announcement to the place and Howard Finster. What I remember after was magical. When I look back now, I try to understand what so incredible for four-year-old me. The answer is simply plain ol’ enchantment; a longing to see more, and the need to explore the place.

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Not only was the place enchanting to me, but also it was enchanting to so many other people. Working here, day in and day out, I can testify that Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden has a drawing power. The Paradise Garden project has allowed this community to have faith in itself once again. Chattooga County is one of those places where growing up felt like being in a television show. The “Mayberry” feeling encompasses this area so much is an installment of strong wills, creativity, necessity, and faith. The people who live here have generally been poor. (I know—I am from a long line of bootleggers and sharecroppers.) Paradise Garden creator, Howard Finster shares the traits of Chattooga County too. When people today walk along the mosaic pathways of Paradise Garden, they see these characteristics in the creation of this internationally known site nestled in the Northwest Georgia Mountains.

What would possess someone to cut the top out of a small country-styled church and build what he imagined would be seen in heaven? A strong will, of course, and Howard had that. He was probably the most famous self-taught artist by the end of the 21st century. Paradise Garden—one of the most famous art sites of America—is a testament to his determination. His hands built every building, sculpture, workshop, sidewalk, flower garden, and fishpond. That takes determination. Not only did he build this place, he also painted 46,991 paintings before he died.

Howard’s creativity speaks volumes. It is in every square inch of this property. Whether a panty hose egg or a splash of paint, nothing was left unused or untouched. His visions provided him with enough creativity for six lifetimes, and it continues to inspire others. We continue to see artists come through and take inspiration from the Garden. The apartment for artists in residence is becoming well used; we have had photographers, designers, and writers all court their muses sitting on a swing on the front porch at a place like no other. Neighborhood children skip through the breezeway as they brush their fingertips across the dangling trinkets and light catchers that Howard used to cover the ceilings.


A swamp was drained and cast off objects were used. Finster the artist used what he had at hand. Everything in his life came from necessity. He grew up poor; he did what he had to do to get by. In adulthood, he repaired bicycles because he needed the income; he knew hard work. Additionally, he was driven to create the things he did by God himself. (It was His instruction to Howard—and as far as I know, when God speaks, one should listen.) This message to Howard was a clear indication of how he should use his will, creativity, and faith. It was, indeed, necessary for him to become an artist.

Of all things that I can testify to, it is that faith is engrained in the heart of this this area. It is such a faith that comes through on so many levels that most visitors don’t understand but sense the glue that binds and allows for this sense of place to continue.

Today, what is bringing people from Australia, China, Argentina, and many other locations to the Garden? Almost every business has a story of someone getting turned around and needing directions to Paradise Garden. Unfortunately the days of multitudes of visitors to Howard’s Garden diminished quite a bit after his death, since the garden was not open to visitors continually and also the conditions of the landscape fell into disrepair. Over the years, jobs diminished too. Chattooga County became the most economically depressed county in Appalachian Georgia.

The grey cloud soon lifted. When rock bottom hit, it only made sense to community leaders to use what they had as valuable resource for community development. It’s those traits that embody the people here. Those traits have developed artists and craftsmen for generations. People working through necessity and with strong will, creativity and faith make this area far different from what has become for the most part, a homogenous world.


The thoughts of our leaders were to resurrect our fair garden. What used to be a magnet would be once again, although they knew it would be quite an undertaking. We were resourceful and knew we could accomplish the task of making the visitors’ experience what it once was. The Paradise Garden Foundation was formed and a group of local people began the arduous task of revival. Professional firms were used to create a site management plan. From this plan, clogged streams were cleared, paths set, buildings shored, invasive vegetation removed, precious art carefully cleaned, and missing pieces restored. Planting beds have been reset to their original configurations and rich soils added. Local Garden Club members have ascended like a SWAT Team, planting flowers and shrubs modeled after historic photos. Amongst the plants, a strong importance is given to vegetables, which are harvested regularly by the people who walk through the Garden. Howard’s intention was that a poor man could have a five-course meal by the time he left the Garden. Fauna and flora abound and have taken root. Streams are flowing again and stagnant waters are no more. Howard’s turtle ramp and goldfish ponds are in frequent use. There are continuous layovers of feathered friends, including ducks and herons.


You may ask what all this does. It creates a sense of place—a place where artists can gather; a place that brings in people from the outside world to help a slow, struggling economy. Local students who only have school four days a week, due to budget cuts, can have this place as a field trip to experience art. They also get to understand that out of necessity, creativity, strong will, and faith, a simple man took a swamp and drained it, installed art made from trash, and inspired the world. He did that in their community, showing students that you don’t have to have a million dollars from a large city, or from an influential family, but if you’re passionate about your community like Howard was, you can change the world.