I slowed down, as if by intuition, and the white letters of the road sign became clear a moment later: “Eddie Martin Road.” I had neglected to look up the address for the West Georgia Outsider art landmark Pasaquan before leaving, and cell phone reception was sluggish. My pilgrimage to see the restored site, unveiled on October 22 after a two-year renovation sponsored and organized by the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation, now depended on sketchy directions I’d gotten—along with a past-its-prime biscuit—at a nearby gas station.
This wasn’t my first visit to Pasaquan. I’d come once before as a teenager. Back then, I was impressed—especially by the strange and solemn interior of a dim temple. Inside, a sculpted figure with an unfinished face sat cross-legged, his arms stretched upward in the cool, crepuscular light. It seemed foreign and Romantic to my juvenile self—especially given that I was about one hour away from my suburban home.
The Saturday I returned to Pasaquan was unseasonably hot for fall and the cluster of painted buildings gleamed in the sun, the once dulled colors fresh and brilliant. Two painted pillars featuring abstracted, smiling faces flank the entrance. They wear long earrings, their hair piled high and crowned with towering headdresses, vaguely reminiscent of Bodhisattva figures. They are Pasaquanyans, time-travelling pansexual beings with big hair and an aversion for clothes. They appear throughout Pasaquan’s interior and exterior spaces.
A couple of friendly Columbus State University students greeted me; one sported vermillion dreadlocks that coordinated with the myriad orange and red hues. Water bottles with Pasaquan’s new logo perspired on a low table. I paid a voluntary donation on an iPad and walked into a room covered with wall text, my hands full of glossy pamphlets. It was wholly unlike the Pasaquan I’d encountered in the past.
Located on the outskirts of Buena Vista, Georgia, Pasaquan is a six-building complex that was transformed by Outsider artist Eddie Owens Martin from the late 1950s through the 1980s. Martin was born in 1908 to a large sharecropper family in Glen Alta and spent much of his childhood working. He escaped to New York as a young teenager in the early 1920s, where he worked odd—frequently illicit—jobs that involved sex work, gambling, and hustling. He made art, but his success was limited. In the 1930s, Martin claimed to have had an illness-induced dream in which he received a new name, St. EOM, and prophesies about the future. He eventually found his niche as a fortuneteller.
Pasaquan expert Tom Patterson—whose 1987 book St. EOM in The Land of Pasaquan will be reissued in paperback by UGA Press in 2017—noted the similarity that Martin had to the weirdo hermits Southern Gothic tradition like Harper Lee’s Boo Radley or Faulkner’s Miss Emily, though Martin easily surpasses such literary tropes. After his mother’s death in 1957, Martin moved back to the family home, which, in the years that followed, he transformed, spurred by his visions and his new religion, Pasaquanuanism. He became a local personality, continuing to work as a medium too, using the profits to fund his art. Following a struggle with declining health, he committed suicide in 1986. Pasaquan was left to the Marion County Historical Society. The Pasaquan Preservation Society was formed, and gave the property to the Kohler Foundation, which recently bequeathed it to nearby Columbus State University.
For those interested in deeper context, the exhibition “In the Land of Pasaquan: The Story of Eddie Owens Martin” is on view at the relatively close LaGrange Art Museum through August 5, 2017. The show’s strength is the insight it provides into Martin’s formative years. I recommend visiting the museum first; otherwise, it will seem tame by comparison.
During his life, Martin enjoyed some notoriety, and Pasaquan continued to be an off-the-grid destination after his death. Yet, Martin never enjoyed the celebrity status of his peer, the visionary and Outsider artist Howard Finster. Pasaquan director and Columbus State University professor Michael McFalls talked to me about the restoration and Martin’s reputation. He speculated that Martin was a little too deviant for his time. Martin was not, like Finster, a fire-and-brimstone Baptist intent on using his art to convert the unsaved. He was more of a lost soul himself. As for the future he foresaw: it was a utopia, not Armageddon. McFalls believes that the times have caught up to Pasaquan. We are more open-minded, and this might be the inclusive era in which Martin can be fully appreciated.
Excited as I was to see it, Pasaquan’s new institutional polish troubled me at first. Restoration tends to inspire debate. Remember the controversies surrounding the restorations of the Sistine Chapel and the Parthenon? McFalls had explained that Pasaquan had reached a point of no return: “If someone didn’t do something about it, it would fall back to the earth.” Yet, the process was invasive, predicated on the inherent problems of the site. Martin often used house paint; sometimes he used paint with no binder. Neither is made to last. During Kohler’s restoration, thousands of photographs were taken. Pantone color matches were carefully made and recorded. Then the site was stripped and repainted. Ultimately, the integrity of Martin’s vision was prioritized over the veracity of the brushstrokes. I recognize that my initial preference for Pasaquan as it was—Pasaquan in ruin, Pasaquan as genuine—is worrisomely essentialist. Yet, it resonates with the myth that was always part of Pasaquan: the notion of pure vision, of something truly extraordinary.
It strikes me that Martin’s early resume, rooted in survival and seduction in New York , undergirds Pasaquan. Despite his apparently profound spirituality, he was shrewd at crafting an enticing experience. Still impressive and unique, the site now leans toward the didactic. It has a mission statement. It has wall text. Kids have scavenger hunts there. The benefits of the restoration seem exponential, and the Kohler Foundation’s stewardship has been admirable, even if some elements of authorship and its counterculture charm were lost in the process. Institutional acceptance and protection come at a price.
Pasaquan is maintained by Columbus State University. Located in Buena Vista, Georgia, it is open to the public Friday through Sunday, 10am-5pm.
Rebecca Brantley teaches art history at Piedmont College. She is board president at ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art and was a participant in the inaugural cycle of BURNAWAY’s Art Writers Mentorship Program.