The Coca-Cola bottle looms large as a cultural icon, but nowhere does it stand taller than in the work of the folk artist Howard Finster, who dedicated dozens of pieces to it over his prolific career.
The Making of an Artist
Howard Finster was born in 1916 in Alabama. According to Finster collector and friend Thomas Scanlin, he bought the land in rural Georgia that would become known as Paradise Garden in 1961. Finster was working as a part-time bicycle repairman and preacher but began to garner more attention for his artwork in the 1970s when people driving past his home stopped to admire his creations, which he scattered in the field by his home.
"Finster promised God he would create 5,000 paintings," says Scanlin. "He actually made 46,991 numbered pieces and easily 5,000 more pieces which were unnumbered. He is thought to be the most prolific artist who ever lived."
The wider world discovered Finster in the early '80s. He was hired to paint covers for albums by REM and the Talking Heads and was invited to represent American art at the Venice Biennale. He became the best-known folk artist since Grandma Moses. Johnny Carson even invited him to appear on “The Tonight Show,” where he played the banjo.
"Howard Finster’s art is a fanciful mixture of religious messages and imagery, personal stories, historical figures and celebrities,” explains Craig Lovin, creative director of the World of Coca-Cola. “And Howard Finster loved Coca-Cola. According to people who knew him, he didn’t drink coffee or alcohol, but he frequently enjoyed a Coke while he was painting, and he often featured the iconic bottle shape in his artwork."
Honoring the Influence
It is appropriate that Finster’s giant versions of the Coca-Cola bottle are currently in exhibition at the Pop Culture Gallery of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. The show, Howard Finster: Visions of Coca-Cola, runs through May 11, 2015 and is drawn largely from the collection of Scanlin.
The stars of the show are two giants: a 13-foot-tall Coke bottle “big enough for man to stand in” as well as the world-famous 8-foot-tall bottle Coca-Cola commissioned from Finster for the 1996 Olympic Games as the basis of a global art project.
"The exhibition outlines the systems he had for making work," says Jordan Poole, executive director of the Paradise Garden foundation, which has restored Finster’s home and compound in Summerville, Georgia. It includes a wooden template from which dozens of bottle paintings were turned out.
But each bottle is different within the shared pattern of Finster's bottles. Each is a world in itself. A green glass ring marks the top and another the bottom. Inside are people and flying objects, towns and churches, all annotated with written moral rules and comments. It's like a sort of terrarium. You can see the whole world in a Coca-Cola bottle, Finster seems to be saying.
Visiting Paradise Garden
If you can't make it to the exhibit, there are other opportunities to enjoy Finster's work. He has pieces in the permanent collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and you can truly get a sense of the man by visiting his home in Summerville.
After Finster's death in 2001, the Paradise Garden, studio and other facilities fell into disarray. But the compound has been recently renovated and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors stop daily to appreciate Finster's world, a 4-acre creative landscape, which encompasses his home and studio, 14 buildings and was the place that Finster painted tens of thousands of artworks. There is also an an annual celebration called Finster Fest, occurring this year on May 30 and 31. The festival allows people to walk through the buildings, learn more about the artist and discover other folk artists and musicians showcased during the event.
The Coke bottle was a feature of daily life for Finster, says Poole. There are “18 buildings, from sheds to towers, and we've found Coke bottles in all of them."
Slideshow: Howard Finster's Paradise Garden
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