Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Northwest Georgia restrooms hold secret to life

The secret to life can be found in the ladies’ rooms of two northwestern Georgia attractions.

First, Paradise Garden in Summerville, the home of the Rev. Howard Finster who, when repairing a bicycle in 1976, received a sacred image on the tip of his finger that told him to “paint sacred art.” He answered that he wasn’t an artist and the vision replied, “How do you know?” Finster took this message to heart and began painting everything he could find, beginning with George Washington on a dollar bill, said Janet Byington, director of the Howard Finster Foundation that operates his home and gardens.

Finster created more than 46,991 pieces of art before his death at age 84 in 2001, from popular culture icons such as Elvis Presley and Coca-Cola to angels and biblical verses. His art is in every major museum in the Unites States and some throughout the world. He has graced album covers for rock bands R.E.M. and Talking Heads, appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and has been called “the grandfather of Southern Folk Art” and “the Andy Warhol of the South.”

Visiting his home and gardens is a spiritual experience. Saying Finster painted on everything feels like an understatement. He transformed items people would have otherwise thrown away, built small houses out of mirrors and stone accented by mosaics, created a tower out of used bicycles and one from hubcaps, and so much more. Even the sidewalks and fences contain art. In addition, much of his more developed artwork is on display in the visitor’s center.

“From this poor plot of land he created an empire,” Byington said. “It’s absolutely amazing what this man created from nothing, painted on everything, what people donated. He didn’t throw anything away.”

Paradise Garden attracts thousands worldwide to Finster’s small hometown and May 27-28 celebrates his life with Finster Fest.

So, what does this have to do with a woman’s room? Inside the center’s restroom is one of Finster’s quotes:

“My work is scrubby. It’s bad, nasty art. But it’s telling something. You don’t have to be a perfect artist to work in art.”

I’ve never been religious in the classical sense of the word but his happy angels, whimsical creations and lifting Bible verses (not the depressing, scary kind) lifted my soul on a chilly, rainy day. For instance, a wall of fluffy clouds offered this quote: “When troubles come from every side, and you don’t know what to do. Turn your self off and trust in God. He will take you through.”

Or maybe this quote above a cow cutout for these political times: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rules of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Bob Watts
There’s also an Air B&B across the street, so you can eat and sleep Howard Finster as well. The house has been decorated by designer Summer Loftin, includes two cats named Calvin and Hobbes and allows unlimited access to Paradise Garden.

Bob Watts and his incredible pizza.
Not far away is Bob’s Brick Oven, serving up some of the finest pizza and homemade ice cream you’ll ever taste in Rock Spring.

Bob Watts changed careers later in life as well, leaving behind the finance world to “follow his dream.” Ask him about life and he’ll tell you he loves what he does, loves coming to work and creating pizza perfection with fresh ingredients and house-smoked meats toasted in his on-site brick oven. He even makes his own root beer!

What’s in Bob’s ladies room?

“Live in the moment and make life beautiful.”

Amen brothers.

Cheré Dastugue Coen is a travel and food writer from South Louisiana who appreciates the weird and wacky side of life. Her finest selfie was taken at Paradise Garden, in Howard Finster's "Mirror House." Write to her at

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hail Fredonia: Marx Brothers began in Nacogdoches

Anyone who has ever watched a Marx Brothers movie knows that the family of comedians were also classical musicians. Harpo (far right), who got his name from the instrument he mastered, could also play several other instruments. Chico (middle) performed on the piano, Groucho (left) sang and performed on the guitar and Zeppo was a vocalist. Like most acts of their time, the brothers got their start in vaudeville, sometimes performing with their mother Minnie, Uncle Albert Schönberg (stage name Al Shean), Aunt Hannah and brother Gummo.
How they got into comedy dates back to an evening in 1912 at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Old Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas
The troupe was performing when a runaway mule caused a ruckus on the street outside the opera house. The audience, distracted by the noise like modern drivers viewing an accident, ran outside to see. Groucho didn’t appreciate losing his audience to a mule so he began making jokes about the town, saying things like “Nacogdoches is full of roaches” and “the jack-ass is the finest flower of Tex-ass.”  To his surprise, the audience thought the snide remarks were funny. And that’s how the brothers added ridiculous comedy to their routines.

“They got their comedy act started here,” said Mike Bay, Visitor Services Coordinator at the Nacogdoches Visitor Center across the street.

You might also remember the fictional government of Freedonia in the Marx Brothers film, “Duck Soup.” Nacogdoches was the site of the Fredonia uprising in 1826, when residents rebelled against Mexico and briefly created the Republic of Fredonia.  
"Duck Soup"
According to “Film Guide to Duck Soup (1933)” by Erin Glossl of the State University of New York-Fredonia, the film was a box office disaster when it was released in 1933. Glossl gives two reasons for its failure:

“One was that it was the beginning of the depression and not many people had money to spend on the movies,” he writes. “The other was that film was a satire and sometimes went over the heads of the audience. When the movie was revived in the 1970s, it became a classic because of its spoof on war and the government. Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy took the film as a personal insult and banned it from the country. The Brothers greeted this news happily. But, foreign countries weren't the only ones that were upset by the film. In Fredonia, New York, Mayor Harry B. Hickey protested the movie. He claimed that the movie was giving the real Fredonia a bad name. The Marx Brothers said to the mayor that he should change the town's name.”

Today, the Nacogdoches Opera House is the Cole Art Center, part of the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Art.

Cheré Dastugue Coen is a food and travel writer living in South Louisiana who is the author of several Louisiana romances under the pen name of Cherie Claire and the author of “Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History,” “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Exploring Cajun Country” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” Write her at

Monday, May 1, 2017

Maypole alive and well in Beaumont, Texas

My father once bragged that he refused to do the Maypole at his elementary school spring function and I've always wondered what that entailed and just why he objected. Then I participated in one at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge and had a blast. Guess it's not much of a guy thing, but if that's the case today's men should forgo the macho attitude and partake. 

You can dance the Maypole in Beaumont this month, on May 13 at the Beaumont Botanical Gardens. This free, third annual event  will take place from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and families can wander through the gardens, feed the koi, meet local artists and even encounter a mystical fairy or two along the way, according to the city's press release.  The blessing of the crops and the wrapping of the Maypole with multicolored ribbons by young Beaumont dancers will begin at 4:30. There will be food and drinks available from food trucks.

Cheré Dastugue Coen is a food and travel writer living in South Louisiana who is the author of several Louisiana romances under the pen name of Cherie Claire and the author of “Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History,” “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Exploring Cajun Country” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” Write her at