Last Friday we celebrated the work of Summerville folk artist Howard Finster and galvanized a new art space for Rome, the Harbin Clinic Gallery at Makervillage in the River Arts District on North Fifth Avenue. I was thrilled to be involved with planning the event, one of the most exciting nights I’ve experienced in Rome in a while. It made me proud to be a Roman, and a resident of this very rich northwest corner of Georgia, and it made me acutely aware of how we connect to place.
Long before Finster felt called to create his prolific collection of sacred art, he began creating a place. He bought a four-acre lot with the intent to create a tribute to inventors that he called the “Plant Farm Museum.” It was later dubbed “Paradise Garden” and, once R.E.M. filmed their “Radio Free Europe” music video there, it became a popular destination. Today, most people I know, including me, have a story of their visit(s) to Paradise Garden. If you haven’t been, you really must go. It is truly amazing, and the Paradise Garden Foundation is doing a wonderful job of maintaining this iconic landmark that has created quite a name for the town of Summerville.
My friend Stacie Scoggins Marshall grew up in Summerville and told me that she knew Finster as the Rev. Finster who had grown up with her grandparents. Finster’s daughter Beverly was classmates with Stacie’s father, and she was later Stacie’s very inspiring middle school art teacher. Stacie told me she had no idea how famous Finster was until her UGA art appreciation teacher was floored by the taped interview with him she turned in for a class project. When she walked into the exhibit on Friday evening she said it felt like home to her.
In 1998, my friends Penny and Johnnie Dobson showed up at Paradise Garden and Johnnie asked if Finster felt like marrying anyone that day. Both talented artists themselves, they couldn’t think of anyone they would rather have do the honors. Finster joked, as if they were asking if he wanted to get married, that he never felt like marrying anyone, but if he had a Georgia license and a woman who would marry him, he would. He asked Johnnie how he found a woman with such pretty teeth, and agreed to marry them on the spot.
When Ed Thompson saw my post on Facebook about the progress of the exhibit, he messaged me and offered to loan us a photo he had taken of Finster for Southern Magazine in the mid-80s. He told us how he pled with Finster to put on a blue tuxedo he had heard a family member designed and made for him, and he obliged. The portrait is hanging in the exhibit, a striking one-of-a-kind image of Finster in front of the church he built.
None of these stories would be the same if they had not occurred in the place that Finster created, in the town in which he created it. Stacie recalled how Finster would sit on the porch at Paradise Garden every Sunday afternoon and talk with the people who visited their small town from all over the world just to meet him and see Paradise Garden. Can you imagine how many people there are in the world who feel a connection to that place because of his welcoming nature and creative charisma?
I have connected strongly with the various places of my life because I tend to remember the way they made me feel or random colorful details, more than the facts like years and addresses. Even though I wasn’t born in Rome, my sense of place here is stronger than any other after my 34 years of living here. I love the personality of this place, the rich history and the quirky and memorable characters I have come to know over the years. When people ask me where I’m from, I always say Rome, but qualify it with the fact that I was born in Tucker. It only seems right to honor the bragging rights of so many who trace back multiple generations to reach the tip of their Rome roots, but I love it as my own, just the same.
A while ago, someone posted a meme that asked, “If they made a scented candle to represent your town, what would it smell like?” I knew before I even read them that there would be a lot of snarky responses, fried food or paper mill, for example, and it made me sad to think of how often we connect negative things to our place in the world. If we don’t love where we live, who will?
When I think of the smells of Rome I think of kudzu blooming, or the wild fishy smell of the rivers, or the smells of familiar favorite restaurants downtown. Yes, you could think of those in a negative way, but you can also think of them positively and, doesn’t the way we spin our sense of place solidify the way we present it to the world? Howard Finster clearly loved and celebrated his place in the world, and thanks to him, the rest of the world does, too.
Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.