John Turner OHS '65
Howard Finster on the Road to the Presley Mansion
by John Turner
"I had a deep feeling about Elvis Presley, a real deep feeling about Elvis. I felt in the last years of his life, he was meant to be a minister of the gospel. That was a feeling that come to me. Because of his publicity, he could have won more souls than anybody in the world. I said to myself that if I ever had the publicity of Elvis Presley, I would use it for the Lord"
Howard Finster was a big fan of Elvis Presley and included him in the pantheon of American heros he frequently painted, from George Washington to Henry Ford to Eli Whitney. Presley represented a Southern boy who had escaped his humble beginnings, moving from poverty to great wealth and from obscurity to worldwide fame. It was a journey that Finster began identifying with after gaining a modicum of notoriety for his own artwork in the 70s. "God showed me when to become an artist just like he showed Elvis when to make his best striken' songs. He was a folk artist of music. He was a folk artist of what he was called for to do in this world. God says many are called but few are chosen."
While comparisons between Elvis Presley and Howard Finster might be considered a stretch for many readers, it should be noted that while Elvis, "back in the day", had been featured in countless newspaper articles and in Life magazine, so had Howard. What's more, one of Elvis's biggest breakthroughs came when he sang and shook on the Ed Sullivan variety show. Sullivan insisted the rocker's signature gyrations remain out of view, so the TV audience only saw the notoriously sexy star from above his waist. In 1983, Howard picked a banjo, sang two of his own compositions and captured a supportive and enthusiastic audience on the Johnny Carson Show, itself a major Pop Culture phenomena.
Further, Elvis was known as one the most prolific recording artist's of all time, while Howard produced more art than Picasso, creating some 45,000 pieces in widely diverse media before his death in 2001 at the age of 84. And finally, Howard was known for his "sacred art", and Elvis is remembered for singing "sacred music" (Elvis won his only Grammy award for a gospel album).
It was in this vein that Howard frequently pointed out that Elvis was raised in gospel music and often included a spiritual number in his performances, even when he played in the "World's Capital of Sin", Las Vegas. What impressed Finster, who sang and played church music most of his life, was the fact that Presley, despite his fame, never denied nor abandoned the music that brought comfort to him in his troubled times. "We've got a lot of rock and rollers who make millions of dollars and they will sing their songs and never will they mention a song about God. They will never mention nothing about religion. I've always loved Elvis. He has enough guts to sing a religious song once in a while."
In July of 1982, on my way to the World's Fair in Knoxville Tennessee (with a side trip to the Pentecostal snake handlers in the West Virgina Hills), I paid a four day visit to Howard in Pennville, Georgia. On the third day, about two in the morning, when Howard was painting in his studio and we were shooting the breeze, I asked him if he had ever visited Elvis's mansion, Graceland. He said he hadn't, and then started talking rapidly about Elvis and God and what a great guy Elvis was. Without thinking it through, I asked him if he would like to see where Elvis had lived. Howard said "Sure, when would we leave?" Thinking, somewhat confusingly, Memphis couldn't be that far from Pennville, I said "Right now. We can go in my rental car.". He yelped " O Boy!", and added that he could pack some lunches with peanut butter sandwiches and Pringle potato chips and candy bars. We also needed to leave a note for his wife Pauline about our whereabouts, so she wouldn't worry. About a half an hour later, feeling like two kids embarking on a great adventure, we left.
Not having the slightest clue that Memphis was about two hundred and seventy miles due West, we pulled out into the night and not five minutes into our journey, Howard grabbed his guitar that he had brought along, and started singing at full volume. When he finished at least ten songs he had strung together, he started back to talking about how great it was that we were going to be in the presence of the "King", not the "King of Kings", but the "King".
As daylight exposed the rolling green grass that bordered the highway we were traveling, Howard pointed out we were passing some battlefields from the great war in the South. He said we could stop and look for stray bullets that hadn't been picked over by metal detectors. We did that for about an hour while Howard read every plaque about the battles fought on the hallowed ground. Howard even pretended he held a long rifle; he'd hide behind rocks shouting "John, Do you see 'em coming?"
This was the first stop of many we took, from roadside attractions to fast food joints to small towns where we could gas up. What amazed me, but didn't really surprise me, was that, even away from the wonderful distractions of his two and a half acre Paradise Garden environment, Howard didn't stop talking for one minute, not one. Words, like honey bees around a hive swarmed above Howard's head and drifted around the car, seemly connected to him. I could get a word in here and there, but just listening to Howard was entertaining enough. One story was woven into another, and even then, he'd stop the narrative to identify just about every car that passed us. Turned out he was a dedicated car freak to boot.
In a tape recording that he made some fifteen hours later, when we returned to Pennville, Howard described the journey and the highlights of our visit to Graceland. Following is a transcription of that tape, pretty much left intact.
"We went up that highway singing songs and chitter chatter, chitter chatter. John had that car around fifty five miles an hour and he hardly touched that steering wheel and that almost made me fall out of the seat. Man, I'd never seen a man driving like that.
We arrived at the Elvis Presley mansion which was on Graceland Avenue and bought tickets to go in the mansion. They were just five bucks each to go on a bus to the mansion. There were more buses lined up at the Elvis Presley Park than there were at the Atlanta airport. One bus coming in and another loading up and another right behind it, loading up at all times. Just like a river running through the Elvis Presley mansion, a river of people running in the front door and coming out the back door.
The first Elvis room we saw was one the (guide) lady called the "TV Room" Four or five TV's, mirrored walls and TV's everywhere that transferred in the mirrors. And behind the TV's was a little bar that Elvis kept snacks in so that he could eat snacks when he was watching TV. When we left that room we went into the dinning room, which had a great long table and a beautiful chandelier with diamonds shining everywhere. A chair sitting here and a chair setting there and one plush rug. And then we went upstairs, walking like a shadow of a night and saw the beautiful drapery glued to the side of the walls.
We got to the top and toured the Jungle Room with a great tree trunk table that shined like gold. There were also long beds with beasts carved into the arms. A TV machine, setting there. Putting a picture of Elvis on the screen. About five feet high and six feet wide. A TV so big, it would magnify. Now Elvis wasn't there, but it seemed like he was, cause it was like he was with us all the way.
We went out of that room and into the museum of the house. There were 60 billion records there, all in our view. It was a sight to see Elvis's belt buckle that went around his waist with ten thousand dollars worth of diamonds on it. Elvis's motorcycle was there. About a fifteen thousand dollar job and only three hundred miles on it. We got into this room and saw hundreds and hundreds of collections that was given to Elvis by fans. The walls were covered and the showcases were filled from top to bottom.(editors note)
Out in his backyard we saw sitting a Cadillac lined in gold, a Lincoln and a three wheeled job. We then went to the Pool Room, where Elvis shot pool with his friends. It was a beautiful luxury room. We went to the Ball House where he played ball . And behind that was the fences that reached to the beautiful tall grass where Elvis kept animals and horses. And then we came around to the beautiful swimming pool, clear and clean, just like Elvis had been in. And a little further was the Meditation Garden. There we found the mounds of Elvis lying, the sun shining down and without sound. There Elvis lie with his father, with his dear mother and with his grandmother. All lined up in a round circle with a bend of a turn so you could walk around. People everywhere, looking here and yonder. About nine or ten feet deep of crowds.
Half dollars, nickels, dimes and quarters. Probably fifteen thousand dollars of coins in the wishing well that people had thrown in memory of Elvis. We then went on the lawn of the great mansion and onto the bus which took us to the souvenir shop.
Visiting the Graceland mansion, it was a wonderful story about a man who got everything he could get in this world, that he couldn't have anything more. It was wonderful to see this success of a great man that loved us. It's a beautiful story."
Soon after I left Paradise to continue my trip, Howard interestingly enough, had a vision that literally left him "All Shook Up". As he recounted to just about anyone who would listen, the Man himself had paid Howard a visit.
"Three days later I was down in the Garden and I had a picture of him (Elvis) drawn on canvas, and you could see it on both sides. The wind just kept blowing it down. I'd wire it and it would get blown down. I finally moved it up in front of the Cadillac. And while I was down there, I stooped over in one of my flower beds, where this thing was hanging. And I felt like somebody walked up behind me, you know. It was three days after I visited his home. I looked around, and there he stood. He had on a light blue shirt, a dark pair of pants, and an open collar, just standing there behind me. I just looked back and seen who he was and I was trying to believe 'Am I seeing Elvis, or am I dreaming? Where am I at?' And I started back working on the flowers like I was having a spasm or crazy or something. Because he walked up and I looked back and seen him. And when I started back on the flowers, to be sure, I talked to him with my back to him. I says, 'Are you going to be around, can you stay awhile?' or something like that, you know. He says, 'Howard, I'm on a tight schedule'. And I looked back around and he was gone. And that's all I can tell you. That's all we had to say. He was just like he was when he was about halfway through his career, courageous and young like that."
This encounter with Elvis, after that day, become part of Howard's personal mythology, which he solidified with countless retellings to writers from newspapers and magazines as well as to an attentive audience at the International Conference on Elvis, which was held in 1995 at the University of Mississippi. Howard also enjoyed talking about his trip to Graceland, which he memorialized in a framed collection of Polaroid's he had taken on that visit along with a description of what the photo's showed.
In his later years, Howard moved from Paradise Garden to neighboring Summerville, where he bought, what some people have said, was the 2nd nicest house in town. Formally owned by a doctor, it was vaguely reminiscent of a scaled down Graceland, with its' colonial styled white-columns, a large manicured lawn, a swimming pool and a pool house where his grandchildren and their friends would shoot pool. As Howard once remarked "I've got a kind of a mansion I live in. It's a big house. It was once a rich persons house, and finally I came along, a poor man, and got it."
On our way to the Presley Mansion, Howard told me that he wanted to meet the head man there and tell him he would give him one of the Elvis pieces he had made out of cement or wood or had painted, as a souvenir. That way his fans and Elvis's fans would be sharing.
After touring the fan museum, I told Howard that I could arrange for him to meet the person in charge of public relations, but Howard demurred, saying that he had thought more about it and figured that maybe he could get in trouble with the Presley people over copyright issues, as Howard had created and sold hundreds of Presley related pieces of art.
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