The Reverend Howard Finster was twenty feet tall, suspended in darkness. Or so he appeared in the documentary film that introduced a teenaged Greg Bottoms to the renowned outsider artist whose death would help inspire him, fourteen years later, to travel the country. Beginning in Georgia with a trip to Finster’s famous Paradise Gardens, his journey—of which The Colorful Apocalypse is a masterly chronicle—is an unparalleled look into the lives and visionary works of some of Finster’s contemporaries: the self-taught evangelical artists whose beliefs and oeuvres occupy the gray area between madness and Christian ecstasy.
With his prodigious gift for conversation and quietly observant storytelling, Bottoms draws us into the worlds of such figures as William Thomas Thompson, a handicapped ex-millionaire who painted a 300-foot version of the book of Revelation; Norbert Kox, an ex-member of the Outlaws biker gang who now lives as a recluse in rural Wisconsin and paints apocalyptic visual parables; and Myrtice West, who began painting to express the revelatory visions she had after her daughter was brutally murdered. These artists’ works are as wildly varied as their life stories, but without sensationalizing or patronizing them, Bottoms—one of today’s finest young writers—gets at the heart of what they have in common: the struggle to make sense, through art, of their difficult personal histories.
In doing so, he weaves a true narrative as powerful as the art of its subjects, a work that is at once an enthralling travelogue, a series of revealing biographical portraits, and a profound meditation on the chaos ofdespair and the ways in which creativity can help order our lives.
Driven by painful memories of a schizophrenic brother who had visions and turned to Christian fundamentalist thinking, Bottoms (Angelhead: My Brother's Descent into Madness) sought out religious outsider artists, hoping to discover whether artistic expression helps relieve the suffering of visionaries who hover between madness and ecstasy. He writes thoughtfully of his quest, which takes him first to Georgia to visit Paradise Gardens, a four-acre Christian art environment replete with biblical quotes and apocalyptic predictions created by the late Rev. Howard Finster. In South Carolina, Bottoms interviews William Thomas Thompson, a paralyzed ex-millionaire who was inspired by an apocalyptic vision to paint a 300-foot mural called Revelation Revealed. In Wisconsin, the author calls on painter and sculptor Norbert Kox, once a member of the Outlaw biker gang and now a born-again Christian who lives in an abandoned store and creates savage critiques of organized religion. Although the art Bottoms sees is not to his liking, and the artists' politics are far to the right of his own, he presents sensitive vignettes. His poignant book, imbued with troubling thoughts of his brother's illness and his own uneasiness about his motives in seeking out marginalized artists, ends on a positive note: the creative process does indeed have life-affirming powers. (Mar.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.