In April 1996, Orthodox Christian writer Frederica Mathewes-Green (now a Beliefnet columnist) spoke with Howard Finster, a Baptist preacher-turned-artist whose inspired and visually unique works have appeared on album covers and in galleries around the world. Howard Finster died October 22, 2001.
When you started out as a preacher, you preached that Jesus was the only way to salvation...
Yeah, well, a lot of people don't believe things like what happened to me. God called me into the minister work. I got crowds of mixed-up people in my tent meetings, Catholics, Methodists, Church of God, all kinds. How I got started with this work, I pastored churches for close to forty years, and I thought I'd run a survey one day on the members of my church. I asked them in the night service what I'd preached on in the morning service, and they wasn't anybody there that remembered that. And I said to myself, they're not paying much attention to me, what am I gonna do? Lord, I want to preach all over the world and reach more people. Then God called me unto sacred art, got to putting messages on it.
Tell me about your beginnings as an artist.
...The Lord had to show me to sell my art, he give me a vision that the art was to support me and to build the garden.
One day I had a vision to go full-time on my art and lay everything else aside. I was out on the porch looking down toward the road, and there was a man standing at the gate about fifteen feet tall, and his head was big as a refrigerator. He was familiar to me, I'd met him before, but I couldn't think of his name to save my life. I didn't know what to say to him, so I finally said what I say to the other customers, "What can I do for you, sir?" and he said, "You can get on the altar." And that surprised me. I been preaching forty years, what does he mean? I asked him, "Did you say, `Get on the altar?'" and he said, "Yeah, get on the altar." And when he said that he went down to a normal man, just looking over the top of the gate. And after that went away I said, "Lord, what does this mean?" The Lord said, "If you want to be pretty big in the art work, just reach on out there and go full-time. If you just want to go on and do art part time, you can be a little guy like you are." ...
The Smithsonian put a sign next to [one of your paintings] saying that, "The historical, popular, and biblical subjects of Finster's portraits embody his concept of the inventor as someone whose creative process will provide the world's salvation." Do you agree with that? That the inventor, the artist, provides the world's salvation?
Probably some people mean different kinds of salvation. I'm talking about the salvation of Jesus Christ, that's what you gotta have.
I don't really know what I've accomplished. Sometimes I get uneasy about myself and wonder if I'm ready, and wonder does God love me, would I go to heaven if I die now. Some things all come to me, and I know I've been borned again, and I know I've been saved. And I know God has been with me many times, and the spirit of Jesus has been with me, and I seen angels. I don't reckon you get so good enough till you think you're perfect. I don't think anybody but what they're kinda uneasy, they're wondering, if they knew they was going to meet God this evening, they'd rather have a little time to study things out. That's the God part in the human, we've all got the image of God in us and we belong to him, even if we're sinners. Like the Bible says, God is love. It means, if Hitler went to hell, God still loves him, and the way he got to hell was going over God's love. And if you die today and go to hell, even if you're in hell he still loves you, his love never stops, but you gotta do something about his love. When you get saved and accept him, you're all right.
You used to preach this way every Sunday, I guess.
...For fifty years I've had a vision of leading the world to the Holy Bible. In it they'll find eternal life, they'll find how to get to heaven and escape hell, and I'm asking you to buy your own Bible, do your own reading, and see how simple it is to understand. You don't have to go to Bible school or hear a pastor. If you can't understand it, you're pitiful. You're in the same shape I am.
Some people read it and they still don't believe.
There's a way of proving it to `em. You give me a person that don't believe in Jesus, just let me have one hour with him, and when I get through with him if he don't believe in Jesus, I consider him to be a fool.
I listen to Bible tapes all the time, and every once in awhile something really touches me. Yesterday I was listening, and it was when several of them had seen Jesus after he was rose from the dead. Thomas hadn't seen him and was telling `em, "I won't believe in him until I thrust my hand into his side and feel of his nail-scarred hands." Another occasion come up and there he was. And Jesus said, "Thomas, come hither thy hand into my side and into my hands, see that it's me, for I don't want you to go around not believing." And Thomas broke down saying, "My Lord and my God. Yeah, I believe now."
He believed by seeing. Well, a fool can do that. You can look at a monkey and believe it's a monkey. You can look at anything and believe it's it. Here's what Jesus had to say about that. "Thomas, thou hast seen and thou dost believe. But blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."
And that was me. That brought tears to my eyes, when Jesus said that. That was me, who believed and hadn't seen. That's what's so great about it, Jesus called me blessed, right there in my bed. And I had to rejoice over that, and I felt sorry for poor Thomas. That blessing was on me, and I felt it, just as fresh as if he was standing there.
I think about meeting Matthew, Mark, and Luke and all the apostles, I'm gonna see them some day.