Subject – R.E.M.’s Reckoning and the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, with cover paintings done by the Reverend Howard Finster
The late Reverend Howard Finster (1916 – 2001) was one of the country’s most talked-about folk/outsider artists. In 1965, he said that he heard a voice from the Lord which told him to transform two acres of land in Summerville, GA into a “Paradise Garden.” Using junk, broken dolls, tools and clocks, he embedded these materials in concrete walls which surround both a 30-foot tower built of bicycle parts and his own church called “The World’s Folk Art Church.”
Rev. Finster w/D. Leonardis All images Copyright 2007 David Leonardis Gallery – www.dlg-gallery.com
“Paradise Garden” was an ongoing project that expressed his religious convictions and creativity and he explained that he assembled the pieces for a purpose -“to mend a broken world.” In 1976, he had a vision of a tall man at his gate (the Lord) who directed him to begin painting “sermon art” because, “preaching don’t do much good – no one listens – but a picture gets on a brain cell.” The voice commanded him to paint this sacred art and to create individual paintings and portraits of personal heroes, religious and patriotic images and to pass on his spiritual messages to the world. Finster’s paintings have evangelical themes and inspirational images which come from his own interpretations of the Bible. Angels and saints as well as earthly characters are often portrayed, and all of his paintings contain witty, printed quotations known as “Finsterisms.”
Several of his paintings show how he was influenced by the imagery on postcards, popular magazines, cultural icons like Elvis Presley, historical figures and, of course, figures from the Bible. Some of his creations have joined the contemporary art and music world through his paintings for the album covers of the rock groups REM and The Talking Heads. Other artists to use Finster art on their record covers include Memory Dean, Pierce Pettis, and Adam Again.
Finster made art out of nail heads, gourds, bottles, cement, mirrors, plastic, snow shovels and even an old Cadillac. However, the majority of his works were usually made out of plywood or heavy canvas, with the works ranging in size from a few square inches to 8-9 feet in height. His art was original, innovative and expressive. In 1994, a portion of his Paradise Garden was installed as part of the permanent collection of Atlanta’s High Museum.
He believed he came from another world and is often referred to as “This Stranger From Another World.” Finster believed the more he painted, the more people he would save, and went on to create over 46,000 works of art. The works are presented in many forms, sometimes called “paintings in tongue,” visions of other worlds where people live in harmony. Finster had his visions for the future. “A day when one computer will run the earth and the final day when giant tidal waves will cover the world. And then the time will come for G-D to create men again – men like the Reverend Howard Finster.”
Chicago-based art gallery owner, Finster historian and owner/curator of the new Howard Finster Vision House museum (located directly across the road from Finster’s “Paradise Garden”) David Leonardis worked for a number of years with the Reverend (until his death in 2001) and spoke with him about “the making of” the two record covers he’s best-known for – R.E.M.’s Reckoning and the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures. He shared his insights with Cover Stories in a September, 2007 interview, highlight of which are detailed below…
All images Copyright 2007 David Leonardis Gallery – www.dlg-gallery.com
On R.E.M.’s Reckoning – The Summerville, GA evangelical preacher and folk artist first gained national fame after collaborating on a number of projects with the Athens, GA – based rock band R.E.M.. Both Finster and the band had appeared in a documentary (released in 1987 and featured on MTV in both their Cutting Edge and 120 Minutes series) about the Athens, GA music scene by writer/director Tony Gayton titled Athens, GA: Inside/Out and, in 1983, the band chose to film the promotional video for their debut recording “Radio Free Europe” at Finster’s “Paradise Garden” compound. The following year, the band’s creative lead, singer Michael Stipe, collaborated with Finster on the painting for the cover of their second LP titled Reckoning. The relationship continued into their third record (Fables of the Reconstruction) as the band wrote the song “Maps and Legends” in honor of Finster.
Reckoning was the second studio album by the band, released in 1984 by Miles Copeland’s independent label I.R.S. Records to both critical acclaim and much improved record sales that their debut album (Murmur), reaching #27 in the U.S. and becoming the band’s first charting album (peaking at #91) in the U.K. Songs such as “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”, “Pretty Persuasion”, “Time After Time”, “Little American” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” have gone on to become R.E.M. standards, and with Michael Stipe’s unique lyricism, singing style and intense stage presence emerging at this point, Reckoning has, over time, established itself as one of the most-influential records of the 1980s.
According to David Leonardis, “As an art student in the Athens, GA area, Michael Stipe had heard of Reverend Finster and his folk art church, and both were featured in the documentary film called Athens, GA: Inside/Out about the mid-1980s music scene in Athens, Georgia. As Finster recalled it, when Michael needed a collaborator for the painting for the cover of R.E.M.’s 2nd record (Reckoning), he came to Finster and started the work by drawing the outline of the snake that is at the center of the image. Howard then did the rest. I’m not exactly sure where the snake image came from – perhaps it was a sexual reference, or perhaps it was derived from Michael having seen the large ‘Snake Mountain’ that was found in the Paradise Garden, which was a cement sculpture Howard had done. R.E.M. used a similar snake-inspired design in creating a collectible bandana for fans, and also produced a poster for the band that featured Finster’s ‘Snake Mountain’.”
All images Copyright 2007 David Leonardis Gallery – www.dlg-gallery.com
On the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures – The winner of the “Best Album of the Year” in 1985 in writer Robert Christgau’s annual “Pazz and Jop” poll for The Village Voice, the Talking Head’s Little Creatures (on Sire Records) found the band writing songs that were much more mainstream (though, in my opinion, no less unique and interesting) than some of their earlier records. Riding on the success of its well-received singles – “And She Was”, “Stay Up Late” and “Road To Nowhere” – and coming off of the commercial success of their Top 10 hit single/video (“Burning Down The House”) and the tour that was documented in the Jonathan Demme film Stop Making Sense, Little Creatures sold well and eventually went Platinum.David Leonardis recalls – “The Talking Heads commissioned a Finster painting for Little Creatures in 1985. There was a fine art dealer in Chicago (now in NYC) named Phyllis Kind who was Finster’s principal dealer and was also friends with David Byrne, so she acted as the producer/liaison and lead the project to create the painting. Howard had done a painting that showed himself holding the world on his shoulders, and that served as the basis for this new image. Howard received photographs of the band members and then incorporated their likenesses into the new composition. The final image was so different and appealing that it was later selected as ‘album cover of the year’ by Rolling Stone magazine. He went on to also design the covers for four Talking Heads singles, including ‘And She Was’ and ‘The Lady Don’t Mind’.
Years later, David Byrne and Finster finally met during a trip Howard took to New York (Finster addressed him as ‘David Burns’!). Byrne is an accomplished graphic artist himself (Ed. note – he was a graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design), and he owns the original painting and has it on display in his home.”
And while Howard Finster may have been responsible for introducing millions to folk art, he remained focused on spreading the word of God. He said of the Talking Heads album, “I think there’s twenty-six religious verses on that first cover I done for them. They sold a million records in the first two and a half months after it come out, so that’s twenty-six million verses I got out into the world in two and a half months!” (Finster 1989, p. 197).
About David Leonardis and the DLG Art Gallery –
At the height of the Recession in 1990, David Leonardis started collecting art. When he realized he wanted to collect more art than he could afford, he got a job working at a gallery. Eight months later, allied with artists Howard Finster, Chris Peldo, Glenn Wexler and Andy Kane, he turned a few profitable art sales into a commitment to own and operate the David Leonardis Gallery. Fifteen years later the Wicker Park (Chicago) gallery is at the forefront of 21st Century American art. In September of 2006, DLG expanded to another location in the prestigious River North Gallery district in order to reach an even broader demographic of art lovers. DLG also carries 19th century French lithographs and 20th century Contemporary, Pop, Folk Art and Photography and focuses on making people and corporations happy by selling them art. The DLG features an “Instant art collection” group show yearly. DLG suggests that you buy one of each of all artists exhibited.
To learn more about the new DLG-run Finster museum in Summerville, GA, please visit http://www.myspace.com/howardfinstervisionhouse
To see examples of Howard Finster’s record cover artwork available at RockPoP Gallery, please visit http://rockpopgallery.easystorecreator.com/items/howard-finster/list.htm
To see more examples of artwork related to R.E.M. and the Talking Heads in the RockPoP Gallery collection, please visit either/both of the following pages – http://rockpopgallery.easystorecreator.com/items/r.e.m./list.htm
About “Cover Stories” – Our weekly series will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
Every Friday and the followinf week on The Rock and Roll Report, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.