Howard Finster was born on a small farm in northeast Alabama, and spent most of his adult years in adjoining northwest Georgia. He was still a child when his strong creative drive, as well as his visions began to manifest themselves. He dropped out of school after finishing the sixth grade to help work the farm, and he began preaching at sixteen, making the first steps in a long career as a traveling Baptist minister.
After retiring from formal church ministry in 1965, Finster supported his family by repairing bicycles, lawn mowers, and other small engines, devoting much of his time to an ambitious backyard project, "Paradise Garden." Finster's garden brought him national attention, and the "sacred art" he began creating the following year—spurred on by a tiny human face that spoke to him from a paint smudge on his fingertip—made him famous. From the beginning, he would fill any available space surrounding the highly varied imagery in his work with handwritten Bible quotes, all manner of opinionated messages, and startling accounts of his frequent visionary experiences, in which he traveled to "other worlds beyond the light of the sun." He called his freestanding artworks, "sermons in paint." The early ones were fairly small works in "tractor enamel" on plywood or masonite. Within a few years he had begun to make sculptures and experiment with other materials including mirror glass, plexiglas, plastic beads, and wire. Urgent in tone and intensely overwrought, his works deal with several large themes—history, biography, autobiography, divine power, worldly calamity, human sinfulness, spiritual salvation, steadfast faith, heavenly reward, and extraterrestrial life. By the time of his death from heart failure on October 22, 2001, he had created more than 47,000 dated and numbered pieces.