By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
Eddie Owens Martin was deathly sick. His days being a young hustler in 1930’s New York were catching up with him. “I was just coughin’ and heavin’…like I was cleansin’ myself of my past. And durin’ the worst night of all, when I thought I had died, my spirit seemed to leave my body and I encountered this vision of a great big man sittin’ there like some kinda god, with arms big around as watermelons… . And he said to me, ‘If you … follow my spirit, then you can go…,’” he told biographer Tom Patterson.
Visions instructed him to start a new religion, “Pasaquoyanism,” to change his name to St. EOM. “You’re an artist,” voices said. “I really didn’t ever know what I wanted to be in life until I began to dabble in the arts and learned to depend on that inner voice…”
Soon paintings of Mayan temples, bizarre landscapes and ancient civilizations filled his squalid apartment. His image changed from slick to mystic, a guru without followers. His tribal robes and coiled long, spindly locks added to his allure as he became a popular fortune teller.
He’d run away from the family farm outside of tiny Buena Vista, Georgia when he was just 14 years old. “I threw myself on the mercy of the world,” he’d said about leaving an abusive father and a community that labeled him as different. Then, at age 49, the spirits told him to move back to the now-vacant family farm and begin building his legacy: the Land of Pasaquan.
“I never had any overall plan. All I knew was that I could see these designs in my mind… I hadn’t ever built nothin’ before. I was experimentin.” Peaking through the woods, townspeople were astonished and mystified as Eddie created 900 feet of masonry fences emblazoned with weird and risqué images, psychedelic totems, decorative walkways, sculptures, a dance platform, murals and fanciful copulas. Hammered tin embellishments turned the modest farmhouse into a temple. He toiled relentlessly, mostly alone, for 30 years. He funded the construction with income from fortune telling. One of his regular customers was Plains resident “Miss Lillian” Carter.
Rumors of trained rattlesnakes kept out interlopers. Teenagers dared each other to go in. One of them, Fred Fussell, took the dare.
He came to get his fortune read and left with a fascination that lasted 30 years. Fred was among the first to recognize the value of St. EOM’s creation and the possibilities it brought to the region. When Eddie died by suicide in 1986, Fred and his neighbors founded the Pasaquan Preservation Society. Years of struggling to find funding finally attracted the Kohler Foundation. It has spent three years and millions of dollars to restore it: everything from stabilizing foundations to bringing the vibrant artwork back to life, the largest and most complex project the Foundation ever undertook. “It’s beyond our wildest dreams. We’d tried every avenue we could think of,” Fred says.
Michael McFalls led Columbus State University’s collaboration during the restoration work and will direct the project as the college takes responsibility for its future preservation.
The vision is to “to give visitors a unique insight into the intuitive artistic process… through diverse programming, interdisciplinary workshops, lectures, seminars, retreats, and performances, which challenge established ideas about the arts. We envision Pasaquan becoming a culturally enriching leader…while assisting in economic development.”
Buena Vista, GA, population 2,000, could use some economic development. There are hardly any restaurants. The one B&B is looking for a buyer. Michael says that the town is “coming around to the idea of Pasaquan being an opportunity. They recognize the genius in their backyard.” It’s a slow process.
When I visited in November there weren’t even any signs directing visitors to the remote art environment. In nearby Richland though, entrepreneurs have been quick to sense opportunity and raise economic development money. A shiny rum distillery dominates the still-shabby downtown. The sugar cane’s provenance is just up the road making them the only U.S. rum manufacturer with their own farm. The high quality sipping rum is distributed as far away as Europe.
Amy Stankus moved her artisanal Chocolate South from Atlanta and is gearing up to make gourmet rum balls. Regional artists are being enticed by the low cost of living and progressive ideas. It’s an ironic outcome for St. EOM who bragged of being “too bold and brazen for them people that run the art world.” Nonetheless, he created one of the most significant intuitive arts environments in the country. On October 22, 2016, Pasaquan will reopen to the public with great fanfare. St. EOM’s spirit will certainly be in attendance.
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com.