Over the course of your lifetime, every now and then you encounter something so strange and compelling and vivid that you know you will never forget it. Pasaquan is like that.
On August 25 Sharon and I had the pleasure and honor of visiting Pasaquan, the home of visionary artist Eddie Owens Martin who renamed himself as St. EOM, pronounced “om” as in meditation, or “ohm” as a unit of electric resistance. The seven-acre site in Buena Vista, Georgia, was the family homestead that Eddie inherited after his mother passed, and he proceeded to spend the final 30 years of his life remaking it from top to bottom into a personal art temple, a place for fortunetelling, a meditation center, an outdoor dance pavilion, and a welcoming site for when the aliens finally arrive.
For Eddie the years between 1957 and 1986 were filled with endless creation: building and decorating nearly a thousand linear feet of outdoor concrete walls covered with hand-wrought reliefs and vividly painted imagery, painting hundreds of canvases, creating all manner of sculpture and jewelry, designing and sewing his own clothing, even fashioning his own roof shingles and hand-carved wooden garage joists. Everything adhered to his highly personal aesthetic sense, a rich and colorful and idiosyncratic but consistent amalgam of visual symbols and motifs loosely derived from everywhere that inspired him — the pre-Columbian Mayans, Haile Selassie, ancient Egyptians, Asian cultures, and even the speculative underworlds of Atlantis and Mu.
I prayed to God to make me different from anyone else in the world.
And by God, I think I succeeded in that prayer.
— St. EOM
But after Eddie died, his three decades of painstaking work were followed by three decades of decay and disrepair. Eddie was not only a self-taught artist but a self-taught builder. Fences fell, paint chipped, wood rotted in the exposure to 30 years of weather that beat down the products of his amazing creativity.
There are many heroes in this resurrection story, but perhaps the most visionary of them all is the Kohler Foundation. The foundation’s extraordinary commitment to the project reflects their foresight as to its ultimate value to American art, to the magnitude of Pasaquan’s vision, and even to the economic development of southwestern Georgia:
The project is expected to take nearly two years and is one of the largest art environment preservation initiatives Kohler Foundation has taken on. Work will include both object and painting conservation with conservators coming from International Artifacts (Houston) and Parma Conservation (Chicago). Local tradespeople under general contractor T.G. Gregory are addressing structural concerns and functionality in the six buildings. Interns from Columbus State University are involved in documentation, organization of archives, and assisting with conservation.
Upon completion, Pasaquan will be gifted to Columbus State University (CSU) in Columbus, Georgia, who will care for the site into the future.
The Kohler Foundation has assumed a leading role in the preservation of important folk architecture and art environments. Pasaquan was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008 and is considered among the most important art environments in the United States, and the Kohler Foundation has dedicated significant financial and professional resources to restore Pasaquan to its former glory.
Since 1986, the Pasaquan Preservation Society, a volunteer board of local trustees, has maintained the site. This group of preservation-minded and dedicated supporters dreamed of seeing Pasaquan preserved and sought out Kohler Foundation to fulfill that dream. Fred and Cathy Fussell, two more heroes of the Pasaquan saga, were leading lights in the conservation effort, saving and labeling fallen fragments of the fragile Pasaquan environment with the hope of eventual restoration. It became increasingly clear that the site was in dire need of professional conservation treatment. Thanks to the decades of voluntary stewardship by the Fussells and others, the team of experts that Kohler engaged is bringing Pasaquan back to its former glory.
Born into a sharecropping family, at 14 Eddie ran away from home and immediately began hustling for survival in the roaring twenties in New York City, where he lived off and on until he started the Pasaquan project in the fifties. But in 1922 Buena Vista (pronounced “BYOO-na Vista” by the locals) couldn’t contain Eddie’s restless appetites for worldiness, sex, art, and the allure of distant cultures.
The most complete telling of Eddie’s story was written by Tom Patterson in a book called St. Eom in the Land of Pasaquan: The Life and Times and Art of Eddie Owens Martin. This extraordinary volume is largely based on direct transcripts of blunt conversations between Tom and Eddie in the final three years of his life.
I quit school when I was 14 years old, ’cause I thought,
“Well, if this is education, why pursue it any further?”
— St. EOM
In 1935 during one of his sojourns from New York to Georgia, Eddie fell extremely ill. His sister had even told him, “Well, we was talkin’ last night about goin’ to send a coffin to get you this mornin’ to bury you.”
But that night something changed:
I encountered this vision of a great big character sittin’ there like some kinda god, with arms big around as watermelons. His hair went straight up and his beard was parted in the middle like it was goin’ straight up. And when I saw him I knew I had reached the end of my spiritual journey. And this great big man said to me, “If you can go back into the world and follow my spirit, then you can go, but if you can’t follow my spirit, then this is the end of the road for you, and you can’t go back.” So I said, “Well, I’ll do what you say.” I felt regenerated. Renewed.
That inner voice spoke to me again and told me, “You’re gonna be the start of something new, and you’ll call yourself ‘Saint EOM,’ and you’ll be a Pasaquoyan — the first one in the world.”
— St. EOM
Eddie interpreted this vision as a personal visit from God, and that its meaning was for him to be “curious about all these religions” in the world, and to represent what he learned through art.
Pasaquoyanism has to do with the Truth, and with nature, and the earth, and man’s lost rituals. In the ancient days when man was created and put forth to walk on the face of this earth, he was given rituals by God. But man does not know these rituals any more. He’s been robbed of ’em because of greed. He’s so busy makin’ a dollar that he’s lost his rituals. Only man’s labor is prized in this society. His love of soul and spirit and the earth will not be fully realized until he finds that he can communicate with his whole and natural body, including his hair and beard.
— St. EOM
A major component of Eddie’s vision was based on the revelation that human hair, pointed upward, acts as a celestial antenna. In 1938 he had seen a film about the Sikhs and was especially impressed by their morning rituals with their hair and beards. Upward-swept hair is a persistent visual theme in his reliefs and murals throughout Pasaquan.
The environment of Pasaquan challenges the limits of the word “unique,” because it encompasses a visual exoticism all its own and yet finds its cosmopolitan outlook curiously located in rural Georgia. The remoteness that makes visiting the site such a trek is exactly the aspect that reveals one of Pasaquan’s most important secrets: the magic of productive isolation. Isolation as a spur to the imagination. Isolation as an excuse for unbridled self-expression. Isolation as a motivation for action.
Pasaquan may perhaps be described as a series of mashups — Southern eccentric crossed with New York flamboyant, Cleopatra crossed with The Andy Griffith Show, or Midnight Cowboy crossed with the shifty fortune teller from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
Eccentricity is not unknown in the rural South — Howard Finster’s visionary homestead is just a few hours up the road. And the list of vivid literary luminaries from the South is also substantial, including Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers.
Eddie always considered himself to be psychic (“I have a psychic screen in the back of my head”) but he discovered the practical secrets of how to make a living as a fortune teller from a confidante in New York City.
These people that come here for readin’s, I break it all down to ’em. They’re puzzled and all in a whirl. They don’t know this, they don’t know that. And I just break it all down into a few common words of sense. And they understand that. What I am, really, is a poor man’s psychiatrist.
— St. EOM
He carried his new skill back to Buena Vista after his mother’s death when he returned to care for the family homestead. Fort Benning and its US Army Armor School nearly adjoin the Pasaquan property, and even now the sounds of the M1 Abrams main battle tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and assorted weapons can be heard with unnerving regularity.
Eddie depended on the fort’s young soldiers for part of his income in his later years. Before deployment, many of them would consult with Eddie for a rite-of-passage reading of their fortunes — perhaps in jest, sometimes quite seriously.
One apocryphal story involves a group of soldiers who piled into a car to visit Eddie before their missions. All of them paid for a fortune telling except one soldier who claimed not to be interested. The others had completed their readings, then insisted that the holdout have his fortune told as well. Reluctantly he agreed to be read by Eddie, but he did not want to know the result. Eddie wrote the fortune down on a slip of paper, folded it, and gave it to one of the others for safekeeping in case the holdout changed his mind.
En route back to Fort Benning, the group was involved in a horrific auto accident. Everyone was injured, except for the holdout — he alone was killed in the wreck. Remembering their recent visit with Eddie, the soldier who was holding the holdout’s fortune unfolded the paper and read it aloud to the group: “You have no future.”
John Salhus, head of painting for the Pasaquan project, is a staff member with Parma Conservation and is a fine artist in his own right. Based partially on the untrained status of Eddie himself, as well as the general lack of cultural or economic opportunity in the Buena Vista area, Salhus made an early decision about staffing the project. When possible, he would train and employ local young people for non-critical tasks to give them exposure to art not only as a job but as a profession, and also as a means of preserving local heritage.
Salhus took his new responsibilities seriously enough that he opened a studio on the town square called Buena Vista Projects where he educates and exhibits the work of local young people in addition to creating his own works of art in his free time.
When Eddie was actively creating Pasaquan from scratch, he bought his paints and his concrete at the hardware store on the town square — the very same space now occupied by Salhus and Buena Vista Projects in a geographic tribute to Eddie’s memory and spirit.
There is an invisible line that joins Donald Judd’s Marfa, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden… and now St. EOM’s Pasaquan. CSU recognizes the cultural importance and the economic value of the gift it has been given by the Kohler Foundation.
Art and cultural tourism have exploded around the world, and the art environments of both fine and folk artists have become anchors of economic development in the communities where they find themselves. The Kohler Foundation’s foresight in preserving the important environment of Pasaquan will create not only a cultural legacy for Marion County and Georgia, but a potential economic engine of growth and many new opportunities for local citizens. Tourists need food and housing and tour guides, and Pasaquan is the area’s most compelling new reason to build an infrastructure that welcomes visitors from far and wide to show them some of that legendary and abundant Southern hospitality. It’s what Eddie would have wanted.
This fuckin’ society we got here don’t appreciate my art and my theories on the hair and the beard and all. But just you wait. When I’m dead and gone they’ll follow like night follows day.
— St. EOM
—Michael Vitali, 4 October 2015
BOMB Magazine article — a good introduction by Tom Patterson.
CSU has created a digital archive of Pasaquan photos and documentation called In Transition: The Visionary Art Environment of Pasaquan.
Pasaquan Preservation Society Oral Histories (Spring 2015), including Fred and Cathy Fussell
Tom Patterson’s book St. Eom in the Land of Pasaquan: The Life and Times and Art of Eddie Owens Martin is based on extensive conversations with St. EOM during the last three years of his life, and is the source of all direct quotations above.
Peter Schjeldahl’s review of Tom Patterson’s book in the New York Times.
Jonathan Williams photographs of Pasaquan at the Beinecke Digital Collections of Yale University, shot while Eddie was still living.