Rocking Howard Finster

Getting to the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design means following an unassuming two-lane on the outskirts of Hendersonville. It’s a typical winding mountain road, skirted with thick growths of trees.

Were it not for the signs, in fact, the place would be easy to miss, sitting as it does behind a small ridge, its low-rise design blending into the surrounding hills.

It’s a lonely spot — perfect for featuring work by artists who profess to practice their craft in isolation.

Lining the building’s inside walls — and even spilling into its center-room displays — the (Folk) A.R.T. IS collection includes pieces by some of the most well-known “outsider” artists in America.

In one display room rests a large wooden boat, its crudely carved hull sharing space with a wolf-sized sculpture of a mother possum, her young offspring dangling from her tail. Quilts dominate the walls, depicting Coca-Cola and crude human forms.

Along the edges of the ceiling in the main hall, hand-hewn roosters, cats and devils — all by Georgia preacher R.A. Miller — gaze at the viewer with perspective-less eyes.

Meanwhile, the main display room is guarded by a stern-faced singing cowboy — the work of an artist identified only as “Geroge.”

The exhibit represents just a fragment of Hendersonville-based entrepreneur Scott Blackwell’s own extensive folk-art collection. Blackwell, whose Immaculate Baking Company often features the work of folk artists on the packaging of its cookies, has spent the last few years gathering cash to start a permanent folk-art museum in Hendersonville. One fund-raising effort — Immaculate Baking’s successful attempt in May to create the “World’s Biggest Cookie” — has gained the proposed museum some national attention.

Yet Blackwell’s passion remains ultimately personal. The collector began 20 years ago with a single Howard Finster piece — a story Blackwell plans to share during his “Finster’s Shoe” lecture at the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design on Tuesday, Dec. 2 (held in conjunction with the folk-art exhibit, and part of the center’s Tea Time Talk series).

Folk (art) hero

In 1984, the Rev. Howard Finster — then just another little-known Georgia preacher-turned-folk-artist — caught a corner of the public eye upon the release of R.E.M.’s breakthrough second album, Reckoning, which featured a piece of Finster’s art for its cover. Though Finster had been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship two years before, and had already been featured in several popular New York City shows, it wasn’t until his work started showing up in this country’s record-shop racks that he edged into cult-hero status.

It was to be an important meeting of subcultures — American-youth music shaking hands with American folk art — bringing much-deserved attention to Finster and his fellow unstudied artists.

His religious-fundamentalism-flavored paintings vividly diverged from the preachings of traditional art education.

The lack of depth in Finster’s paintings gave his every subject — from Elvis to the Mona Lisa — a kind of cartoon quality, while his colors were generally bright and uniformly solid. To this, Finster would add stray lines of text, often flowing around the figures in his paintings as if the words were being poured on top of them. These messages were a mix of personal history, family memories and what Finster felt were missives received directly from God.

His art had its own language that, despite any fire-and-brimstone trappings, endeared his genuine voice to a budding culture of indie rockers and their fans — who believed as well in doing what you believed in, even if it seemed crazy to others.

And suddenly, being an unschooled artist living in poverty was hip.

Within a decade, many trained painters started experimenting with “primitive” art, fragmenting a genre whose more-privileged adherents then pleaded aesthetic authority through a professed ignorance of the schooled rules of art.

“I saw his work on an album cover”

Brian Haynes is a true self-taught artist, his painting a side pursuit largely inspired, he says, by his first love: collecting music. Haynes owns Almost Blue with his wife, Susan, and he spends much of his time in the well-respected downtown-Asheville music store’s basement — a cramped vinyl-record shop decorated in art, some of it by Haynes himself.

“I just started painting,” he offers, pointing more or less at those cluttered walls, their paintings interrupted by band stickers, tacked-up album jackets and other memorabilia. Haynes’ own work — cartoon-like depictions of music icons such as Buck Owens and Hank Williams — easily stands out.

“Everybody just called [my work] ‘folk art,'” he continues. “I see where [that] comes from, because it’s kind of crude. One person called it ‘pop folk,’ and I think that fits.”

Though Haynes’s paintings can be likened in some ways to Finster’s own — particularly in their rough style and bright colors, and the large patches of text nestled against the main subject — the record-store owner claims his primary visual influence is underground cartoonists such as Zap Comics creator Robert Crumb.

Still, the music world can’t quite shake the Finster Effect; the much-celebrated, old-timey-style rock posters from Yeehaw Industries Letterpress — especially their Lucinda Williams print from several years ago — boldly testify to that.

Haynes recalls first encountering Finster’s art through yet another of the preacher’s collaborations with the world of rock — his cover painting for Little Creatures, the Talking Heads’ 1985 release.

“That was the first time I’d ever heard of him,” admits Haynes. “I thought it was a cool cover.

“I love his art,” Haynes adds. “And, of course, I bought Little Creatures.”


Scott Blackwell’s “Finster’s Shoe” lecture on the Rev. Howard Finster, will begin at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 2, at The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design on the grounds of UNCA’s Katherine Kellogg Center (1181 Broyles Road, Hendersonville). This Tea Time Talk is in conjunction with the center’s (Folk) A.R.T. IS exhibit, which runs through Friday, Dec. 5. For more information, call 890-2050, or visit www.craftcreativitydesign.org.

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