What you see: Vision of George on Planet Loraleon, by the late American outsider artist Howard Finster. Slotin Folk Art Auction estimates it at $30,000 to $40,000.
The expert: Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art Auction in Buford, Georgia.
First, let’s discuss the story of Howard Finster–how he became an artist, and how his art career played out. He was a street preacher in the small town of Summerville, Georgia. He would stand on the hood of his car on Main Street and preach. He also had to make a living, so he’d put clock cases on the hood and sell them. One day, he was watching Billy Graham on TV. He watched the whole thing and couldn’t remember what he heard. Finster had a vision that he should put his sermons into art so they were always there to see, in the art. As a person of no means, he could not buy art supplies. He would say, “I take your garbage and turn it into art.” He would take refuse and any paint that was around. Early paintings were tractor enamel [paint] on board, scrap, whatever.
How was he discovered? People knew about his art but didn’t consider it art. But one day, the Talking Heads put his art on the cover [of their 1985 album Little Creatures] and R.E.M. put his art on the cover of [their 1984 album, Reckoning]. He was known and collected, but when the Talking Heads album went big, he became famous. People rushed to buy from him, and that’s when his career really soared.
Did the Talking Heads discover him? No. His work was known and in shows, but the masses–when the Talking Heads had that monster album and his art was on the cover, with David Byrne holding the world up–that’s when Howard Finster became a household name.
Not many outsider artists gain recognition while they are still alive and actively making art. How did Howard Finster react to his fame? He never changed. The only thing I think it did was let him by a nicer house for his wife. Otherwise he was the same street preacher who stayed up all night, eating coffee grounds and working on his art. It never went to his head.
How prolific was he? He started painting around 1976 and went into the 2000s. He had a good thirty-something years of painting. For the first ten years, no one really knew about him. He numbered every piece of his artwork. In his later years, his kids and grandkids helped him. I believe he got up to 40,000 pieces of art.
He numbered every single piece of art he ever made? From the very first one forward? Yes. He was quite an unusual guy. He believed he was from another planet. He had visions, and conversations with people from the beyond.
And he was an insomniac? He worked all night and all day and hardly ever slept. He’d eat about a spoonful of Folger’s instant coffee. He had a very hard rural upbringing before he became a street preacher.
Where does Howard Finster rank among the titans of outsider and self-taught artists? He is by far the most recognized self-taught artist out there. Others may bring more at auction, but as far as making the field accessible and known to the masses, there’s no one like Howard Finster.
Really? Is he better-known than Grandma Moses? People know her stuff, but they knew it in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. It’s been two or three generations since Grandma Moses connected. Howard Finster was popular in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, and he still connects to the masses.
What is the story of Vision of George on Planet Loraleon? Is it a stand-alone work or is it part of a dedicated series on a specific theme? That’s the thing. Howard is really not from this world. Where his thoughts take him are very strange and unique. He did a set of four-foot-by-four-foot paintings–I guess there are under 20 pieces. He probably made two or three of George Washington. I don’t know the story behind the planet Loraleon. It could truly be all going on in his mind.
Did Howard Finster think that he came from the planet Loraleon? I think he said he traveled to all these planets. He’s way out there in the universe on this stuff.
So he didn’t claim to be from planet Loraleon? No, but he was able to visit and travel in his own mind, his own visions.
Do we know why he did 20 paintings in four-by-four size? There just happen to be 20 at that size. One is called Superpower, and dealt with the Russian-American conflict. Some are George Washington. Some are Daniel Boone. Some are about getting to heaven. They vary in subject. A few years ago we sold one of Jesus’s mother–she was a central figure for that. It brought $51,600. That’s still a record for any Howard Finster piece.
Did he scavenge or receive a pile of four-by-four boards, and use those for paintings? After a certain time, he started to get better art supplies. He still used leftover tractor enamel. He could have ordered four-by-four boards. Normal plywood is four-by-eight. Maybe he had a bunch of these cut.
How often does George Washington appear in his work? Quite often. He would repeat a lot of icons, using them over and over. He did thousands of images of Elvis at three years old. He loved people in history, especially American history.
Does his George Washington always look like this–like the portrait we see on the dollar bill? That I can’t tell you. He comes up with portraits or images. It could be the dollar. It could be a cereal box. Who knows where this stuff comes from?
I’d like to talk about some of the details of the Howard Finster painting–particularly Washington’s collar, which looks like a sidewalk with people strolling on it. What meaning did this have for him? For a lot of his paintings, there’s no rhyme or reason to what’s going on. A lot of clouds have faces, because it’s easier for him to have faces on them. That’s what makes self-taught art America’s greatest art. Nothing else out there [is like this] and everything else after this will be a copy of this. He’s only influenced by himself and religion and what was around him.
I see a church in the background, and the handwritten religious messages, but this seems less religious than other Howard Finster paintings. This doesn’t seem really religious, but he’s trying to preach at the same time. He always has churches, he always talks about Jesus. There are proverbs and messages from the Bible. There’s always some kind of preaching going on, and he’s always trying to get the world right in his mind.
Am I right in thinking this Howard Finster painting has a less crowded composition than other works of his? It’s not as busy as most of his works, and it’s very bold. Even the details of his shirt–it’s charming.
This Howard Finster paintings measures four feet by four feet. Is this the largest size he worked in? These are the biggest paintings you can get. He did a painting as a full four-by-eight sheet, but he didn’t really paint it–the paintings are stuck on there. He was prolific in his paintings. Some are big. Some are small. Whatever he could get his hands on, it didn’t matter to him, he was just trying to get the word out. Wood, concrete, fabrics, rags, anything. We’ve seen stuff on mirrors, on glass, almost anything you can think of.
Picasso and Warhol were also prolific, and that has helped their secondary markets–the volume of stuff creates momentum that keeps their markets going. Is that true for Howard Finster’s market, too? Does the volume of his work create momentum for his market? It’s more true than with Warhol or Picasso. Finster signed and numbered his works, even his later works. It’s a lot easier [money-wise] to have a Howard Finster in your house than a Warhol or a Picasso. Howard Finster did original art, but he was able to mass-produce it because he just worked so hard at it.
This painting was featured in a show and a book named Passionate Visions, by Alice Rae Yellen. How might that fact affect the painting’s value to collectors? It’s very helpful, mainly because it shows provenance, it shows it’s been exhibited. Those little things always help a piece of art.
Several other works by Finster appear in the auction. How do they compare to this work? What makes this one especially interesting when compared to the other five? The size and the rarity and just the sheer–it’s an early, early classic piece with great size to it. Whoever gets this will always have a museum-quality piece. No one can debate that.
What condition is the Howard Finster painting in? Mint condition.
Which means what, in the context of a Howard Finster painting? It’s been maintained very well. No fading. No scratches. It’s as pristine as the day he made it.
The Howard Finster painting has a frame made by him. How many Finsters have Finster-made frames? Is that common? In the early days, when he was a street preacher, he’d put clock cases and other wooden items to sell [on the hood of his car]. He made frames for his works. He would burn little designs onto the frame with power tools. If you’re lucky, you can get an early work with a frame.
Is this a pretty typical frame for him, or does it stand out in any particular way? I like this frame. It’s multi-layered, like, three or four layers of wood burned on top of each other. It’s very well built-up, and it’s a heavy frame for him. I’d say it’s one of his best frames.
We know he made 40,000 or so pieces of art. Do collectors prefer Howard Finster paintings that have certain numbers? Are they less interested in paintings with higher numbers? The period when he was going from a paintbrush message to a Sharpie message–between 5,000 and 6,000, we see permanent marker come in to write the preaching down. That’s where most collectors want to be, 5,000 and earlier. Those are his most important pieces.
I don’t see much in the lot notes about the provenance of the Howard Finster painting. Has it been to auction before? Right, it hasn’t been on the market. A dealer probably sold it [to the consignor] 20 or 30 years ago.
What is the Howard Finster painting like in person? It’s powerful. It’s big and it’s bold and it’s striking. I guarantee a lot of people will take selfies next to it during the auction.
How did you arrive at the estimate for this Howard Finster painting? I imagine it was informed by the sale of the Virgin Mary painting of the same size? This would be the second-highest price paid for a Finster if it sells within the estimate. I’d be very happy if it exceeded the estimate, and my estimates are usually conservative anyhow. There’s no other chance to get a four-foot-by-four-foot Finster. To get one on the market is rare. The others are in private collections, and when I ask about them, [the owners] want over $100,000 for it. That’s nice, but a little high for the market right now.
Why will this Howard Finster painting stick in your memory? When you look at an artist’s work–we’ve been in the auction business for self-taught art for 25 years, and we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of Finsters. Some you just gravitate to. Rarely do we have a piece like the Virgin Mary or the George Washington. Twenty-five years from now, it will be very difficult for anybody to pick up a masterpiece like this.
How to bid: The Howard Finster painting Vision of George on Planet Loraleon is lot 0186 in the Self-Taught, Outsider, & Folk Art auction at Slotin Folk Art Auction in Buford, Georgia on November 9, 2019.
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Steve Slotin previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Sam Doyle painting on tin roofing material that went on to command $17,000; a work on paper by Minnie Evans that later sold for $8,000; and a sculpture by Ab the Flag Man which ultimately sold for $1,200.
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