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Brother Mayes and Rev. Howard Finster

Rev. Howard Finster from Sumerville, Georgia might be one of the most well known visionary artists from the American South. He was prolific, quirky, and deep into pop culture. I visited his Paradise Gardens several times and my partner got some original works. I’d say Finster kicked off our interest into American outsider and folk art.

Now years later, I’m travelling the highways around Kentucky and Tennessee virtually (via Google Maps and Street view) in the footsteps, or better car tracks, of Henry Harrison Mayes. Obsessed with his obsession of spreading the gospel, he almost got me to start believing.

And while I connect the dots, try to find every bit about him online (for now and for the most part, that’s the only way) I stumble upon the information that Rev. Howard Finster and Brother Mayes knew each other, they even inspired each other and “Lord, I hope there are tapes!”.

Not thanks to the Lord (although who knows) but thanks to artist and educator Eleanor Dickinson there are tapes!!!!11! Somewhere in the archives of the Smithsonian there are audio and video recordings of the Mayes and the Mayes with the Finsters.

In the following letter, Dickinson describes how she brought the two together:

I have been drawing, taping, photographing and video taping Bro. Mayes since 1968 after a long search for his whereabouts. Each year since then I have visited and documented the Mayes and consider them very dear frlendi I am enclosing a copy of my book REVIVAL! published by Harper and Row (nominated for a Pulitizer Prize) which has a chapter on Bro, Mayes, also a description of an edited video tape of both Bro. and Sister Mayes and an extremely poor dub of the video tape, 1980, When I sat down to make you a copy I discovered that the tape had deteriorated badly and that I must now go back to the original tapes and reconstruct the tape. Please, therefore, see and hear the tape for content not for technique. I have many, many photographs of the Mayes. Richard Ah 1 born. Curator at The Smithsonian Is In charge of my Collection there of Revival artifacts and can tell you of many items of Bro. Mayes Including a 1400# concrete cross In the “Nation From Nations” exhibition and another 1400# concrete heart in storage, I trucked both these up from Kentucky for the Collection.
Jerry Parsons, Librarian, at the Archive of Folk Song, Library of Congress, can find for you many tapes of Bro. Mayes In my Collection there the Library and Smithsonian also have various drawings I made of Bro. Mayes as well as photographs; two shows at The Corcoran Gallery (1970 and 1974) included drawings and photographs; SITES toured the second show (Ann Gossett, Curator) for six years so many parts of the country saw the work of Bro. Mayes. The Smithsonian is also showing a wooden cross and has two large painted metal, signs plus many other artifacts. In 1981-2 in a major exhibition at the Tenn. State Museum, Nashville, Tn. (Lois Riggins, Director) an entire case was given to small artifacts of Bro. Mayes plus two 1400# signs – cross and heart – a wooden cross, metal sign and his bicycle with religious signs (he rode in local parades). There has been some discussion with my Editor of doing a book on Bro. Mayes.
By the way, last year it seemed remiss of me to not introduce two men with so much in common so I drove Rev. Howard Finster and Beverly Finster to Middlesboro, Ky. and then back to Sumerville, Ga. so these two aging giants of Southern religious folk art could meet. They were both very happy to meet and neither stopped talking for the entire weekends my tapes, photos, and drawings of this meeting are a treasure. I’m working on an etching of the two men.

Letter to Pat Sanders, National Endowment for the Arts from Eleanor Creekmore Dickinson, 1985

In his book Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World, Norman Girardot mentions Mayes and the culture of religious road sign:

As Finster would often say about his myriad patchwork words, images, cutouts, and constructions, all his work represented multiple “signs and messages from God.” His work in this way harkened back to his early experience as an itinerate roadside preacher who traveled the byways of the South, which were increasingly lined with both commercial and religious signage.[30] It appears that Finster was fully aware of the maker of the most famous of these early roadside religious signs, Henry Harrison Mayes (1898–1986). Mayes was known as the evangelical Sign Man, Cross Builder, and God’s Own Messenger and was especially active during the 1940s and 1950s throughout the Appalachian region.
Mayes was also someone who made his home (in Middlesboro, Tennessee) into a religious environment and attraction. He called it his House of Many Crosses, and this structure resonates with, and perhaps influenced, Finster’s religious-themed parks in Trion and Pennville[31].

30.) See especially the discussion of this by Charles Reagan Wilson in his introduction to York’s With Signs Following, pp. v-viii. See also the related discussion about Finster’s passion for roadside signage and attractions in Glen Davies’s “Paradise on Earth,” in Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster (Champaign, IL: Krannert Art Museum, 2009), pp. 11-22. On religious roadside attractions, and for an insightful discussion of Finster and his Paradise Garden, see Timothy K. Beal’s Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005).
31.) For an interesting background article with pictures about Mayes, see “Henry Harrison Mayes, 1898-1986,” SmithDRay website, September 18, 2000, http://smithdray.tripod.com/hmayes-index-7-1.html. John F. Turner has indicated in several email communications (such as on January 23, 2013, and August 31, 2013) that he remembers Finster being impressed with Mayes and his sign ministry: “Brother Mayes was [Finster’s] inspiration.”

Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World, Norman Girardot, 2015, P. 47

The connection between these two men makes so much sense. Both were so very prolific and to some extent obsessed with “spreading the word of the Lord” and keeping track by numbering their work or put them on maps.

Finster and Mayes work was influenced by American pop culture and advertising, and which American wasn’t influenced by that. While Finsters depicted soda brands, Mayes worked for those companies and painted their ad signs and therefore mastered his typographic skills and ways how to get the message out.

Both man created religious themed structures or architectures. Howard Finster with his Folk Art Chapel and Harrison Mayes with his House of Many Crosses.

Regarding their faith, neither Finster nor Mayes were fundamentalists. Finster was a southern evangelical who didn’t interpret the Bible literally, but symbolical. Harrison Mayes didn’t believe in belonging to one church. He felt he was a member of God’s own church. He was non-denominational and never hesitated to attend any church of any denomination, including Catholic, black and Jewish synagogues.

And last but not least, and this might be just me making things up, Finster and Mayes had their heads in and above the clouds. Metaphorical with being closer to God, but also physical with their interest in outer space activities. While Finster and visions of extraterrestrial and UFOs, Mayes had plans in place to get his markers into outer space and onto planets. There was even a cross of his at Cape Canaveral waiting to be taken to the moon. For other markers he inscribed their future destination into them and expected his children and grandchildren are going to space one day. At the end of the day he called himself a P.A.E. – Planetary Aviation Evangelist.

Edit: 2023-10-31


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