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Howard Finster comes home to Lehigh

The “Finster Festival” at Lehigh will chronicle the eclectic life of Howard Finster with three simultaneous exhibitions that officially debuted Oct. 1, a Nov. 5 symposium to examine “The Measure and Meaning of a Master,” panel discussions featuring world-renowned Outsider art experts, and a special premiere of a new documentary film on Finster titled “I Can Feel Another Planet in My Soul.”

The multi-layered Finster Festival will also include family workshops, integrated academic courses and a multimedia series that will deconstruct Finster images and sounds, according to Norman Girardot, professor of religion who co-curated the exhibitions with Diane LaBelle, arts consultant and newly named executive director of the Goggle Works in Reading, Pa., and Ricardo Viera, professor of art and architecture and director of Lehigh University Art Galleries.

“The time has come to contemplate the multiple and overlapping questions of aesthetic quality amidst the overwhelming quantity of Finster’s work,” says Girardot. “Where is the art in this untidy chaos, and how do we judge it in a meaningful way? And what significance does his work hold for the larger world of outsider art or for mainstream art?”

Finster’s dramatic story includes stints as a plumber, grocer, carpenter, bicycle repairman and traveling preacher in the deep South before he claimed to have been struck, in his 60th year, by a vision from God. The remainder of his life, which ended in 2001 at the age of 84, was dedicated to the production of nearly 50,000 works – perhaps the largest known body of original work ever created by a single artist.

His canvasses included everything from discarded toilet seats to dried gourds, and featured images as diverse as angels, Elvis, Jesus and UFOs.

Why a Finster exhibit at Lehigh?

Although Finster is well-established as one of the most important visionaries and outsider artists of the 20th century, few know of his association with Lehigh University, which was a motivating force behind the Finster Festival, its organizers say.

Girardot and Viera have a relationship with Finster and his family that dates back almost 20 years, and the university hosted the artist in 1986.

“I’m currently working on a book on Finster’s artistic and religious significance,” adds Girardot. “Lehigh is also responsible for several ‘firsts’ in the history of American self-taught art, such as the first computer folk art done on early generation Amiga machine in 1986. I think it’s safe to say that, among northern colleges and universities, Finster felt a special connection with Lehigh.”

The idea for the show was inspired by LaBelle’s conviction that a retrospective on Finster’s work could showcase his manic and entrepreneurial energy, prolific production and religiously charged message to a new generation of admirers.

“Finster’s death, in some ways more than Andy Warhol’s, closes out the history of 20th century art,” observes Girardot. “It also points toward a new, more dangerously confused yet hopeful future. At the very least, what Finster often referred to as his ‘bad and nasty art’ say that the vision truly is life and death. We’ve had too much death and fear of late. One of the jobs of art is to offer something more therapeutic and life-affirming in the face of the terror before us.”

“The divine chaos of his life”

The weeks leading up the November symposium will allow the Lehigh community an opportunity to view and appreciate Finster’s work, which is encapsulated in three exhibitions across the campus that were co-curated by Giradot, LaBelle and Viera.

“Howard Finster: Paradise Garden” will be housed in the Dubois Gallery in Maginnes Hall. In the Zoellner Arts Center, an exhibit titled “Revealing the Masterworks” showcases 25 pieces culled from a collection of nearly 50,000.

The curators are particularly enthusiastic about the Zoellner installation titled “Finster’s Cosmology: Howard’s Brain,” and which features the Lehigh Valley-born artist, Joanne DeCheser’s interpretation of what might have bounced around inside the mind of the man some have described as a 20th century version of a medieval mystic.

“It wasn’t uncommon to happen upon Finster in his studio after he’d been up for three days, spooning instant coffee out of a jar and frantically creating,” says Girardot. “In this exhibit, we hope to capture a little bit of the divine chaos of his mind.”

Featured in that exhibit will be a video created by a former Lehigh student Matt Nawada, which will play continuously on a TV monitor

In the Siegel Gallery of Mountaintop’s Iacocca Hall, Finster’s “Cloud Portfolio” will showcase the work produced by Finster during his earlier stay at Lehigh, when he cast his personal interpretation upon a series of photos of random clouds by a former Lehigh student, Patricia Bustany, that were commissioned by Viera.

On Nov. 5th, the Zoellner Art Gallery will be the site of the day-long symposium dedicated to the discussion of Finster’s artistic legacy. Following an introduction by Viera, Girardot will join Colin Rhodes of Loughborough University in England, and Jerry Cullum of “ArtPapers” in Atlanta, in deconstructing Finster’s work.

A panel discussion that will be moderated by LaBelle and George Vierner, a major collector of outsider art from Reading, Pa., will follow. The panel will include Phyllis Kind, founder and director of the Phyllis Kind Gallery; Lynne Spriggs, executive director of the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art of Great Falls, Mont., and former head of the Folk Art Department of the Atlanta High Museum of Art; and two Georgia collectors of Finster’s work: Thomas Scanlin and Rick Berman.

The afternoon’s events will be followed by a reception featuring “music in a Finsterian mode” by Jim DeFonzo (“Jimothy the Fool”), who will play a Finster-painted banjo, and former Lehigh student Justin Solonynka, who will play a Finster-style piano.

At 8 p.m., there will be a special premiere showing of a new documentary film by David Fetchko titled “I Can Feel Another Planet in My Soul,” which will include footage from some of the last interviews Finster gave.

In the weeks leading up to the symposium, there will also be a series of related film showings. The schedule is as follows:

- October 12: “60 Minutes” This special on outsider art in the southern regions of the U.S. originally aired on the CBS newsmagazine.

- October 19: “Art is Life, Don’t Kill it!: A Video Profile of Lonnie Holley” This film explores the art of Lonnie Holley, the seventh of twenty seven children born in Birmingham, Ala., who turned inward and discovered the artist within after a tragic childhood.

- November 1: “Living Museum” This film explores the art created by the mentally insane and delve into minds behind the art.

- November 15: “Basquiat” This film traces the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who went from being an obscure 19-year-old graffiti writer to one of the world’s best-known contemporary artists.

For more information about the Finster Festival and related activities, see the Lehigh University Art Galleries Web site

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Monday, October 11, 2004

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