One Man’s Cathedral in the Georgia Pines
View of Pasaquan, Eddie Owens Martin's creation near Buena Vista, Georgia
Photo: Bill Bishop
Pope Benedict (who has said Protestant groups don’t qualify as churches) seems pretty unlikely to nominate Eddie Owens Martin for sainthood. In his day, Martin had been a marijuana dealer, also a professional gambler and prostitute. He told fortunes for a living. The kind of person to take matters into his own hands ““ even beatification ““ Eddie Owens Martin up and declared himself “St. EOM."
Before dying in 1986, this DIY saint also turned four acres near Buena Vista, Georgia, into a kaleidoscopic sort of cathedral — a place he called Pasaquan. And Saturday, August 4th, if you’re within striking distance of far Western Georgia, you can see it for yourself.
Works by self-taught architects ““blasphemous, pious and agnostic — can be found across the U.S. Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers preside over a neighborhood in East Los Angeles, and Jeff McKissack’s Orange Show stands in downtown Houston. But these rare places are somewhat more probable in rural America, where acreage is cheaper and there’s no review board to dictate the color your mailbox can be.
“I never had any overall plan," Martin told Tom Patterson. “I just knew that I could see these designs in my mind, and these beautiful symbols ““ very weird. And I knew they represented the universe and its forces and the great powers that hold all of this planet here together."
Eddie Owens Martin, born 1908, left his home on a sharecrop farm in Glen Alta, east of Columbus Georgia, at age 14. After years of hustling in New York City’s streets and tearooms, he returned to rural Georgia in 1957 and took on his life’s work. He spent nearly thirty years sculpting and painting a marvel, telling fortunes for money. In 1978, he told a young visitor from Mercer College. “I saw no future, nothing to look up to or respect. So I left and went out to find something to respect on my own and to find my own way of life”¦.In order to support my art I had to become a counselor. In a primitive society I would be called a shaman or a medicine man."
In failing health, Martin took his own life in 1986, leaving Pasaquan to the Marion County Historical Society. But what were they to do with it?
Fred Fussell, a folklorist and former curator of the Columbus (GA) Museum of Art, says St. EOM.’s dreamlike masterpiece is a conservator’s nightmare. “Eddie himself didn’t worry about or didn’t understand some of the long term effects of what he was doing," Fussell says. Most of Pasaquan’s undulating walls are made of concrete and oil paint, “the worst combination you could possibly use." Since oils can’t bond to the surface, “it’s just kind of a skin on the concrete," Fussell explains. ” Rather than adhering on it, the paint is sloughing off."
After Martin died, there were some efforts to maintain Pasaquan’s vibrant painting. But Fussell and others, after forming a non-profit group to preserve the site, changed course. Fussell says that St. EOM, “was always changing things. He would repaint, add to, take away from. It was very much a project in flux when he was alive. We don’t have the prerogative of treating it that way." The Pasaquan Preservation Society has decided to hold off on any more repairs. The 12-member board hopes to hire a preservation architect for guidance and then carefully conserve the place, a project Fussell estimates will cost one to two million dollars. Meantime, they’ve erected a fence, climate controlled the main building, and installed burglar alarms for protection. (In St. EOM’s time, two big German shepherds handled that.)
Pasaquan’s location, at the edge of piney woods, a long way from a major city, makes Fussell’s and his fellow stewards’ work more difficult. Would Simon Rodia’s magnificent Watts Towers have survived in Western Georgia? Didn’t it take the wealth and the sprawling pop culture scene of Los Angeles to rally around and maintain such a place?
Fussell, who with his wife lives in Marion County, isn’t so quick to see Pasaquan’s rurality as a drawback. “Its remoteness makes it a little difficult for some people to visit," he admits. “It’s well off the beaten path however, I think that people who take the trouble to find it are the kind of people we want to have visit the place. If it were two miles out of Atlanta or Memphis, I’m sure we’d have many more visitors than we do," (currently about 100 people each “open day") “but it’s an indication of the sincerity of the people who do find their way here, of their appreciation of the place."
Eddie Owens Martin, St. EOM
Of St. EOM’s many thousands of visitors, one of most famous was Jimmy Carter. With wife Rosalynn and daughter Amy, the president from Plains, Georgia, came to Buena Vista after leaving the big job in D.C. Martin told Tom Patterson, “I took the Carters around the place, and I gave “˜em a few details about Pasaquoyanism and so forth. And I said a few words to him about why he got beat outta the White House that last time. I told him that Reagan’s got just what this country wants: a good head o’hair and a mean line o’ talk. And I asked him why he didn’t do more things when he was in the seat of power”¦."
Unfortunately, visitors today can’t confer with the straight-talking saint, but you can still see his handiwork. During the warmer months, May-November (and it can get very warm in August), the preservation society unlocks the fence and opens Pasaquan to the public the first Saturday of each month. Here’s a map. The remaining Open Days of 2007 are August 4, September 1, October 6, and November 3. (Tours for 20 or more people can be arranged by appointment, too.) Admission is only $5.
In Martin’s heyday, how did the people of Marion County (pop. 7,144) react to St. EOM, with his drums, braided beard and Aztec-peacock attire? “After he came back to Buena Vista, obviously he was a very good customer for the merchants in town," says Fussell. “He was spending some money buying building materials over a 25 year period. I think people just kind of accepted him. Eccentricity is a part of southern culture. And every little town has its kind of eccentric. Buena Vista just happened to have the king of them all."
Pasaquoyanism's one and only Pope.