By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published December 19, 2018
I am a fourth-generation Atlanta native, which means that I have a deep affinity for my hometown’s landmarks and institutions. Of all the Atlanta places that I treasure, The High Museum of Art is perhaps my favorite. This may be because I have visited the museum over the course of my entire life, watching it continue to expand into a truly great collection. It may also be because the High, unlike so many other special places from my Atlanta life, has not been blown up.
At any rate, the High endures, and the museum recently reopened its main galleries after an extensive renovation. The new galleries are a fantastic development, and I recently spent a wonderful morning wandering through the new space and revisiting some of my old favorites from the main collection.
Among the enhancements to the High is a marvelous space devoted entirely to Southern folk or primitive artists, now commonly referred to as outsider artists. The High is famous for its folk art collection, one of the premiere such collections in the country, and the new gallery does even greater justice to the legacy of Southern self-taught artists. R.A. Miller, Nellie Mae Rowe and many others are now given the esteem they so rightly deserve.
Of course, one cannot consider the rich heritage of Southern outsider art without taking into account the remarkable achievement of the Reverend Howard Finster of Georgia, who is the most famous of all Southern folk artists, and whose life’s work is simply astonishing. The High has assembled a great tribute to Finster’s career, including a fine installation related to his Paradise Garden, the sprawling folk art property in Summerville that Finster created over several decades, and which is once again thriving under the auspices of a foundation dedicated to its preservation.
The power and fragility of myth
With Finster fresh in my mind again, and with Christmas approaching, I brought out my copy of Finster’s illustrated version of Clement C. Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” which Finster created in 1996 and published in book form twenty years ago in 1998.
My late friend and mentor, Professor William A. Sessions, often told a story to illustrate the power—and fragility—of myth. The story revolved around a South Carolina farm girl who, upon being told that there was no Santa Claus, immediately responded “then there ain’t no Jesus neither.”
Sessions’ point of course was that once we discount one myth, it makes it easy to begin debunking all other archetypal stories we hold dear.
I mention Sessions’ anecdote for a few reasons. For one, we are a society obsessed now with overturning or deconstructing long held perceptions of truth. “The Night Before Christmas,” for example, was first published anonymously in 1823, and then Clement C. Moore claimed authorship of the poem in both 1837 and 1844. The poem is among the most widely read verses in American literature, and has for generations been acknowledged as the work of Moore. In recent years, however, a growing number of literary detectives have asserted with conviction that Moore did not write the poem.
The skepticism regarding Moore’s authorship may have to do with the poem’s deep connections to Christianity. Ironically, when the poem was first published many Protestants in America still viewed Christmas from a decidedly anti-Catholic perspective, and the poem marked an important turning point in the evolution of Christmas into a secularized holiday. Yet Moore was the son of the Episcopal bishop of New York. The poem’s original title was actually “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” For years, the Church of the Intercession in New York City incorporated the poem in its Fourth Sunday of Advent liturgy, followed by a procession to Moore’s tomb. All of this is jarring to a post-Christian age which churns out annually both lavish and cheap editions of the poem for a new generation of readers.
I suppose that’s one reason why beyond the uniqueness of his illustrations I love Finster’s edition so much. Finster unabashedly grounds the poem in Christianity, redeeming at once both the myth of Santa Claus and enduring Christian theology. It’s almost as if Finster decided to flummox his secular and culturally elite audience by saying, “who cares whose poem it is; there is a Santa Claus and a Jesus too!”
Strange yet spiritual
Make no mistake, Finster was a devout Christian, a former Baptist preacher who was convinced that he was a “Man of Visions.” A divine vision inspired him to create Paradise Garden, and he was adamant that another vision in 1976 commanded him to “paint sacred art.” In all, Finster produced nearly 50,000 works—most of them carefully numbered and dated—before his death in 2001.
Finster never shied away from using pop culture to spread the Gospel message. He referenced the boy Elvis Presley, for example, as a metaphor for innocence, and he painted album covers for the rock bands R.E.M. and Talking Heads. He delighted in appearing on television, even The Tonight Show, and he used all of these public venues to tell a version of the Gospel that was as mystical as it was folksy but which was always grounded in orthodox Christianity. In a painting of a Coke bottle for example, Finster implies that Hell might be the absence of Coca-Cola!
In his illustrations for “The Night Before Christmas,” Finster cleverly intersperses his own text around the folk paintings he has made to accompany various passages of the poem. For example, “The children were nestled all snug in their beds” verse is coupled with Finster’s marginalia: “The Lord will return. Be ready friend when Jesus calls. You must answer. Make a good report.” He follows this theme in the “I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter” verse with “Cast down but not forsaken. Put to sleep but yet awaken.”
At times, the Finster text is pure country evangelism: “The further you push God back the worse it will get,” or “I’d rather be on the inside looking out than to be on the outside looking in.” At others, it’s whimsical: “Santa only wants kids to be good. Jesus only wants kids to be good too.” And as much as the book is for children, it takes square aim at adults: “Our children today need to learn to be good. Christmas time is a good time to work with our kids and impress them.”
Finally, Finster is not embarrassed to say, in a little poem of his own, “The night I got the Holy Ghost, it was the thing I loved the most. Fifty-nine years passed and gone, with the Holy Ghost I am never alone. It has made my happy home and all my sins are forever gone. My work is going out from the Garden like a flowing river on.”
As for the paintings that accompany the text, they are quintessential Finster. Perhaps more than any other outsider artist, Finster had an instantly recognizable style. Picasso once said he mastered formal art technique in just a few years but it took him a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child. Finster’s work is at once innocent and eerie, strange yet spiritual. Angels and other celestial beings are a constant, as are smiling clouds and risen souls. The paintings could be the work of either a preschooler or a Desert Father.
I confess that I am a traditionalist, perhaps even a sentimentalist, when it comes to my imagined vision of Santa Claus. Like many people, I’m under the sway of the Coca-Cola Christmas advertising and the Rankin and Bass Christmas specials. There’s a certain way that Santa Claus is supposed to look, just like there are iconic versions of Colonel Sanders or Mickey Mouse.
But Finster filters his vision of St. Nicholas through a religious perspective, and therefore transcends the superficial to become mystical. Thomas Merton often argued that religious art, if it were ever to be truly legitimate, had to go beyond the simplicity of the gentle smiling Jesus or the serene Blessed Virgin. Genuine religious art incorporates the truth of the Gospel with the unique imagination of the artist to become something as profound as prayer.
This Christmas, if you make “The Night Before Christmas” part of your ritual, I encourage you to take a look at Howard Finster’s vision. I suspect it will give you both a new appreciation of a timeless poem as well as insight into the imagination—and vocation—of a tireless modern artist and prophet.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.