ALBANY — The late Howard Finster, arguably America’s best-known modern folk artist, would have turned 100 years old this past Friday. The Albany Museum of Art has one of the few exhibits marking the centennial birthday of the Baptist preacher turned outsider artist, an idea that originated with a local collector of the world-renowned artist’s work.

Albany attorney Billy Mathis, who also serves as a Lee County commissioner, asked AMA Executive Director Paula Williams if she had ever considered an exhibit of work by Finster, who was prolific after he determined God wanted him to spread the gospel with paint instead of sermons. He and his wife, Wendy, said Williams took the idea and ran with it.

“I think everything then just kind of fell into place … especially since it’s commemorating what would have been his 100th birthday,” Wendy Mathis said.

The 50-piece exhibit that opened last month and continues through Feb. 25 includes works by Finster from the collections of Mathises; the Georgia Museum of Art, and John Denton of Hiawassee, who knew Finster. Katie Dillard, AMA curator of collections and exhibits, said Finster’s work can be found in museum and private art collections throughout the Southeast and elsewhere. His work sells on his family’s official website, www.finster.com, for anywhere from $38 to several thousand dollars, depending on the piece.

The Mathises loaned eight pieces from their collection to the museum for the exhibit. Billy Mathis said he was drawn to the artist for several reasons.

“I guess just the fact he was from Georgia and was one of the most popular folk artists in the world,” he said. “Howard Finster’s a very interesting guy. His art is approachable and entertaining. Anybody could enjoy his work.”

The Mathises visited Finster at Summerville, where the artist began creating Paradise Garden in 1951. It has become a major art attraction for the state, drawing visitors from throughout the world. Next door to Paradise Garden is The Finster Vision House, an art gallery of some of Finster’s work.

In 1976, Finster, who had a sixth-grade education and was a Baptist preacher, said he had a vision from God directing him to create 5,000 pieces of sacred art. Finster, who had no formal art training, painted on wood, scrap metal and other items, usually with enamel. His official website notes that he wasted nothing in creating paintings and sculptures, with his daughter mentioning that he once sold for $5 the top of a can that he painted. The artwork is not in perspective and has fanciful components, from angels to flying saucers, and usually includes words, often misspelled, that appear to have come from stream of consciousness.

“The early years were interesting and the pieces were interesting,” Mathis said. “We did meet him at his place in north Georgia and spent a few hours with him. He’s a very interesting and eccentric fellow. The way he got started painting — he was a Baptist preacher — was he was painting a bicycle one day in a shop and he said when he put some paint on the bicycle, he saw the face of Jesus. And Jesus told him to start painting and that became his ministry.”

After Finster, known as “the Andy Warhol of the South,” created in 1985 his 5,000th piece to complete the charge he got in his vision — that painting is part of the AMA exhibit — he went on to complete more than 41,000 more works before he died in 2001.

One of Wendy Mathis’ favorite pieces is on display, a large painting that depicts saucers flying above a city. Mathis said he had an “interesting” time acquiring that piece, which had been commissioned by a business that rejected it because of the religious writing on the artwork.

“I’m not sure what they thought they would be getting,” he said.

Mathis said he approached Finster’s daughter about buying it, which became an exercise in patience. “It took me a couple of years to buy it from Howard Finster’s daughter,” he said. “That was an interesting experience. His whole family’s a bit eccentric.

“After he passed, his family wanted to sell some of his stuff, but it was hard for them to turn loose of it.”

The Mathises said the piece replaced a large mirror in their home, which is where their collection of Finster works are displayed.

“All of this stays at our house and we just enjoy it,” Mathis said. “Our friends enjoy it. And when the museum called and asked if they could show some of it, Wendy and I both thought that’s what art’s for — to share with other folks. That’s why it’s here.”

The exhibit “Man of Visions: The Inspired Works of the Reverend Howard Finster” can be seen at the museum, located at 311 Meadowlark Drive, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Contact (229) 439-8400 or visit www.albanymuseum.com for information. Admission is free.

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