Finster -- hip, hick & holy

It's hard to miss the Big Idea when an artist puts it right on a painting in bold letters.

"He That Believeth Not Shall Be Damned. Not A Crown But Hellfire And Brimstone," wrote Howard Finster, using his unorthodox spelling and grammar. "If You Only Had One Sweet Son And You Gave His Life To Save Ten Wicked Men. And They Returned And Denied That You Gave Your Only Son For Them And Said You Child Never Exist No One Died For Us."

There's more, written on the centerpiece of a 1990 exhibit in Washington, D.C. "Please Go Right Now And Call You Child To You. And Measure You Love For Him And Turn And Look At The Most Sinful Man You Know And Think If You Would Trade Your Presus Son For Him. God Is Love."

That seems clear. Nevertheless, the curators posted a sign to reassure troubled patrons. Thus saith the Smithsonian: "The historical, popular and biblical subjects of Finster's portraits embody his concept of the inventor as someone whose creative process will provide the world's salvation."

Funny, the preacher from northwest Georgia thought he was saying, "Repent!"

"Probably some people mean different kinds of salvation. I'm talking about the salvation of Jesus Christ. That's what you gotta have," Finster once told author Frederica Mathewes-Green.

"My vision right now is to lead the world to the Bible," he said. Many are not "looking for a piece of art, they're looking for a message."

So that's what Finster offered -- a message. He spent four decades as a revival preacher and jack-of-all-trades repairman. Then, at age 60, he had one of his visions. He was fixing a bicycle when a blob of white paint on his hand formed a face that said: "Paint sacred art."

This didn't make much sense, but Finster did it. By the time of his death on Oct. 22nd, the 84-year-old evangelist had produced 47,000-plus signed works.

This folk-art phenomenon shocked all kinds of people. To the modern-art elite, he was a force of nature. Yet no one could deny that Finster had a knack for touching tired, jaded souls. Meanwhile, some Christians couldn't figure out what he was doing playing banjo on the Tonight Show and painting album covers for rock superstars. He was guilty by association.

"Finster was always a showman and the world of serious art considered him a kind of naive clown," said painter Ed Knippers. "But under that show, there was a very wise man. ... What he was doing was putting little artistic time bombs out in the living rooms of the very people who tend to be the most critical of Christianity."

Over time, Finster let his art do the talking. Some of his messages were, after all, offensive to the people he wanted to reach as customers and converts. One Washington art gallery reportedly dropped him when the owners got tired of being called "infidels."

So Finster learned some manners and mastered the art of being colorful on cue. But he never changed his message. The artist's fundamentalist style was "so in-your-face it was almost campy," said Knippers. His sermons in paint also intimidated the many Christian artists who insist that the key to mainstream acceptance is avoiding explicitly religious symbols and themes.

"Finster's art was a two-edged sword. The art world didn't know what to do with him and neither did the Christian world," Knippers said. "His work cut both ways. ... That is always a sign of a true prophet who is managing to get a message across out in the real world."

What was that message? Here is Finster, once again, working with words instead of paint.

"We all have the image of God in us and we belong to him, even if we're sinners," he said. "Like the Bible says, 'God is love.' It means, if Hitler went to hell, God still loves him, and the way he got to hell was going over God's love. And if you die today and go to hell, even if you're in hell he still loves you. His love never stops, but you've got to do something about his love. When you get saved and accept Him, you're alright."