ATLANTA (AP) - The Rev. Howard Finster, a backwoods Baptist preacher whose eccentric paintings teeming with childlike, colorful images and religious messages appeared on the covers of rock albums and in galleries around the world, died Monday. He was 84.
The folk artist died of congestive heart failure at a hospital near his rural home in the town of Summerville, Ga.
Finster created simple, two-dimensional paintings in bright colors and distorted proportions, imbuing his works with evangelical themes that exhort the viewer to repent and to accept Christ. Many of his works were crowded with messages like "Hell is a hell of a place" scrawled in crooked block letters.
He called them "sermons in paint."
He often used pop culture icons such as the Coca-Cola bottle, Cadillacs, and Elvis Presley in his works, which also included crude carvings and cutouts.
"When Christ called his disciples, he called fishermen. He didn't call nobody from a qualified university," Finster said in a 1990 magazine interview. "He used common people to reveal parables. That's what I do. I use Elvis because I'm a fan of Elvis. Elvis was a great guy. By using him I get people's attention and they read my messages."
Finster began his art career in his late 40s. He was considered a pioneer among unschooled artists.
"He was an introduction to this art for a lot of individuals who had never heard of it," said Marcia Weber, a gallery owner in Montgomery, Ala., who has handled several Finster paintings. "He broke ground."
Finster's work became popular in the early 1980s in New York art galleries.
His widest exposure may have been from album cover art.
The Georgia-based rock band R.E.M. asked Finster to make the cover for its 1984 album, "Reckoning." A year later, Talking Heads, a rock group of former art students, commissioned Finster for the cover of its "Little Creatures" album.
"He took the word of God and did it entirely in his own way, this eccentric, unconventional manner," said Lynne Spriggs, folk art curator at Atlanta's High Museum of Art, which holds the world's largest collection of Finster works. "He was a tireless artist and a great teacher."
Finster was born on a small farm in DeKalb County, Ala., and became a preacher at 16. For more than three decades, he traveled Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, preaching at tent revivals and supplementing his income with odd jobs, including plumbing and bicycle repair.
Finster was known for his three-acre Paradise Garden, which he described as a "folk art haven," built in 1961 on filled swampland behind his home in Pennville in northwestern Georgia.
Paradise Garden features mosaic cement paths, a giant cement boot, the Tomb of the Unknown Body and Finster's folk art chapel. For years, he spent Sunday afternoons at the garden greeting visitors. He later moved to nearby Summerville, and Paradise Garden is now largely owned by the High Museum.
In recent years, most of Finster's work was advertised on his Web site. Finster worked at an almost assembly-line pace.
"We can call it commercialism, but his aim is that his art serves a didactic function: to spread the word," said Lee Kogan, a friend of Finster's and director of special projects at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. "His art serves God. He's interested in getting this message out."
Survivors include his wife, Pauline Freeman Finster; four daughters; a son; 15 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.