Marvin Finn was a familiar resident of Louisville’s artistic community for more than thirty years. The work of this beloved urban folk artist was highly sought after by collectors of toys and contemporary folk art during his lifetime and continues to be sought after by discerning collectors today. He was a living treasure in Louisville; one of a rare breed of truly self-taught visionary artists working at the turn of the century. His personal story is often comical, sometimes tragic and always inspirational.
Marvin Finn didn’t have much as a child growing up in Clio, Alabama. Born in 1913, the son of a sharecropper, he had to leave school in the first grade to go to work in the fields. His father often whittled on wood and from an early age he would stand alongside him to learn carving skills from him. Marvin also liked drawing, painting and building.
“There were ten boys and two girls in my family, and most of them older than I was, so I didn’t have toys except I made them,” said Finn when recalling his childhood on the farm in Clio. “I thought my old man was everything. When I was little I stood right up under him when he was whittling, and I learned it from him. I always tried to make my own toys when I was coming up as a kid. Anything that looked like a toy I would go into the woods and find me a tree and make it. But I remember a lot of Christmases when I never even seen me a toy.”
Marvin came to Louisville after the outbreak of World War II. It was here that he met and married his wife, Helen Breckenridge. After they married in 1952 he continued to make toys for the enjoyment of his five children. It was Helen who used an electric jig saw to help him cut out the toy shapes that he drew on salvaged plywood and boards. When Helen died in 1966, Marvin was devastated but kept making toys to help him through his grief, all the while raising his two boys and three girls as a single parent.
It wasn’t until 1972 that a friend persuaded him to make his first public display at the Kentuckiana Hobby and Gift Show. More shows followed and sales increased with each show as people were drawn to his whimsical work. In 1976, an art collector purchased the entire inventory in Marvin’s four-room Clarksdale apartment. Over the years Finn garnered many admirers, including Phyllis George who established the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation (now Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft). Finn has been a mainstay in both the permanent collection and public exhibitions and promotions at KMAC since of first gallery opened in 1984.
Over the years, Finn has created whole populations of cackling barnyard chickens, arrogant roosters and powerful bulls inspired by his life on the family farm – but he never made snakes, which always terrified him. Marvin has built heavy cranes, trains and bulldozers like those he watched while working as a laborer in the Louisville dockyards.
The older he got the more he understood about the toy he makes. “Sometime I’d wake up at one or two in the morning, I’d get up then, every morning, with something new in my mind. I woke with an idea, and I’ve already got a head start.”
In the year 2000, Louisville Mayor David Armstrong and an advisory committee developed the concept for the use of Marvin Finn’s original art work as the inspiration for a major public art initiative. “Public art is more than an amenity in the streetscapes and open spaces in our city,” said Mayor Armstrong. “It evokes pride and awe in our city from passers-by, and it is a gift to every citizen.”
Thus, the idea for the flock of Finn’s was hatched. Dozens of owners of Finn’s art presented their originals to the Mayor’s advisory committee and 32 pieces were selected as models for the public art project. Colorful steel renditions, some as tall as nine feet, were cut out of half-inch thick steel and painted with graffiti proof paint by a cadre of artists mimicking the unique colors and patterns of Finn’s work. In April of 2001, the “Flock of Finns” landed in Waterfront Park in downtown Louisville. Unlike other cities public art sculptures, the flock migrated seasonally to different parts of the city to the joy and amusement of tourists and residents alike.
Finn’s work reflects a lifetime of seeing the wonder in ordinary things. The view from the kitchen window of his Louisville apartment was the brick walls of the apartments across the street, but the view inside Finn’s mind was something else again. “I just go imagination-wise,” said Finn when asked how he creates his work. “I didn’t learn this out of no book. I had to leave school in the first grade and go to the field to work. But I had a hobby of drawing and painting, and I could whittle and build. And I had my imagination . . .”
Finn is perhaps best known for his haughty, fun and imaginative roosters. His systematic use of bold stripes, dots and dashes painted on scrap wood against a solid background in unconventional color combinations is his signature style. Some scholars have linked his worked to the West African art of the Yoruba tradition.
In the later stages of his career, Marvin’s son Chris took up the family business. He began by working alongside his father, both of them collaborating on pieces together. Often times both would paint on the same piece but as time went on, Chris became the primary painter endowing his father’s creatures with his own personal painting style. Upon his father’s death, Chris continued producing pieces of the menagerie and developed a number of pieces that were his own creations and reflected his own personality.
Tragically, on the eve of this retrospective, Chris Finn passed away, leaving the community much poorer for his passing. This exhibition is a tribute to both father and son, to the creativity, skill and wildly inventive imagination of one of Louisville’s favorite sons, Mr. Marvin Finn.
“I think my work is pretty good as far as I’m concerned,” Marvin once said. “I never did get to finish school, but I’m pretty sharp with my imagination. I just do what my mind tells me to do. Maybe the good Lord plants these things in my mind. When I leave here and meet the good Lord, I ain’t never going to quit making toys. That’s what my mind tells me. That’s heaven to me. . . making toys . . and I look forward to it all the time.”