Reviving Pasaquan: Freshly Restored, an Otherworldly Retreat in the Southern Backwoods

Saint EOM was a self-proclaimed psychic who told fortunes for a living. But when it came to the future of Pasaquan, his flamboyantly sculpted, rainbow-hued compound in rural Georgia, his predictions depended on his mood. On some occasions he confidently declared the place would one day become a spiritual center, attracting followers of the new religion he founded. When feeling down and overwhelmed with pessimism, though, he worried that Pasaquan would fall into neglect or be demolished after he was no longer alive to care for it. Tragically, the depressive tendencies EOM developed in his dotage caught up with him in 1986, prompting him to take his own life at 77.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo Credit: Ted Degener

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo Credit: Ted Degener

Thirty years later his self-styled religion, which he called Pasaquoyanism, hasn’t attracted serious practitioners, but his most remarkable creation has never been in better shape. Since 2014 Pasaquan has been the focus of an ambitious top-to-bottom restoration by national experts and locally hired contractors financed by the Kohler Foundation. The crew recently finished the project, and the impressive results were showcased this fall during a day-long Grand Reopening celebration.

The Creator of Pasaquan

Who was St. EOM (pronounced to rhyme with “home”), and why did he spend his last 30 years building this masterpiece of vernacular architecture? He answered these questions at length in my 1987 book St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan, which centers on his life story in his own words – a no-holds-barred account that’s not for the timid or faint of heart. Aside from his occupation as a psychic reader, EOM (aka Eddie Owens Martin) was first and foremost an artist, as any visitor to Pasaquan can plainly see. He adopted this vocation in his late twenties, midway through a glaringly checkered career as a street hustler, drag queen and weed-dealer in Depression-era Manhattan, where he had fled as a teenager – the archetypal country boy come to the big city seeking adventure and excitement.

The home this teenage runaway left behind was a sharecroppers’ cabin alongside a railroad track in Marion County, Georgia, not far from the future site of Pasaquan. His departure was propelled by hatred of his brutally abusive father and a growing awareness of his own difference from his local peers. (He was gay, and a cross-dresser.) Arriving in New York at 14, in 1922, he set about learning the ways of the streets and the art of hustling. From the roaring twenties through the Depression he managed to forego traditional employment for a more colorful, largely nocturnal career that gave him entree to brothels, drag balls, speakeasies, and jazz clubs.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo Credit: Ted Degener

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo Credit: Ted Degener

In the early 1930s, while seriously ill with an undiagnosed malady, Martin had the first in a series of visionary experiences that set him off on a new path. Assuming the new persona of Saint EOM, he began drawing and painting imagery inspired by these visions and by the ancient cultures of Africa, Asia and the pre-Columbian Americas, which he started researching upon his recovery. His affinity for these cultures’ visual traditions led him to radically transform his appearance. He stopped shaving and cutting his hair, and he adopted a wardrobe of turbans and brightly colored sarongs. To support himself he established a poker parlor in his apartment, where he also sold fried chicken and small quantities of marijuana where he bluffed his way into a new career as a fortune-teller. Following his mother’s death in the early 1950s he inherited her 19th-century farmhouse and four surrounding acres. Not long afterward he left New York, returned to Marion County, and moved into the house, where he began offering his services as a psychic reader. His primary occupation, though, was transforming the premises into what would eventually become Pasaquan, an elaborate private sanctuary hidden in plain view alongside a blacktop road in the hills of west Georgia.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo credit: Ted Degener.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo Credit: Ted Degener

Employing hired workers to lay bricks, apply wet cement and perform other more routine construction chores under his supervision, EOM created the designs and color schemes as well as the monumental sculptural forms and incised geometric patterns that give the site its compelling, animated character. To complete the picture, he integrated himself into his homemade world with special Pasaquoyan regalia that he designed, made and wore on a daily basis. He also devised special rituals he performed at the site on occasions he deemed significant. He bankrolled the entire enterprise with fees from his psychic readings, which he performed daily for paying clients in private sessions. Many of those who sought his advice and lucky-number picks drove hundreds of miles just to spend a few minutes with him. He eventually came to resent the profession as a drain on his creative energy. Fee increases he imposed in hopes of cutting back on demand for his services seemed to make little difference. Visitors who turned up simply to meet him and see his art had to get past two fierce-looking German shepherds, Boo and Nina, his loyal protectors. Then they had to convince the ever-skeptical Pasaquoyan high priest that they merited his attention.

While accommodating steady streams of clients and visitors on a near-daily basis, EOM managed to continue developing Pasaquan over a period spanning four decades. At the time of his suicide he was still working on two buildings at opposite ends of the property, both of which he left internally unfinished and only partially painted.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo credit: Ted Degener.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo credit: Ted Degener.

Rebirth in the Afterlife

Despite clear instructions in Eddie Martin’s will, Pasaquan’s fate remained uncertain into the early 1990s. The nominal heir, the Marion County Historical Society, had to be reconstituted in order to receive the property, after which it formed an ancillary organization, the Pasaquan Preservation Society (PPS), to oversee it. The latter group was soon reconstituted as a separate, non-profit corporation, with regional folklorist and curator Fred Fussell – a longtime friend of St. EOM – as its first director. Meanwhile EOM’s remaining financial resources – including a checking account containing $40,000 and about $43,000 in cash found hidden in his house – were depleted from paying back taxes and penalties, utility bills, a part-time caretaker’s salary, a local attorney’s executor’s fee and related expenses incurred over more than a decade following the artist’s death.

The PPS mounted a concerted attempt to care for and promote Pasaquan, redoubling its efforts after 2003, when the historical society’s transfer of the property and St. EOM’s freestanding artworks made the PPS their legal owner. This group of dedicated individuals deserves the lion’s share of credit for the site’s survival over the last 20 years. It brought in more than $80,000 in grants as well as income from membership dues, admission fees, on-site fundraisers and sales of merchandise from an in-house gift shop – funds used to maintain the site and the artworks. Thanks also to the PPS, Pasaquan was added to the National Register of Historic Places and later identified by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the state’s ten “Places in Peril.”

The PPS, however, was never able to amass sufficient resources to keep up with Pasaquan’s steady deterioration from the effects of time and weather. Most readily visible among these effects was the fading and flaking of paint from the exterior walls and sculptures. More serious problems included decaying roofs and floors in the house and its additions. In 2012 the PPS wrapped up a preliminary assessment of Pasaquan’s preservation needs, which it enclosed with a letter from the society’s board to the Kohler Foundation’s executive director Terri Yoho.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo credit: Ted Degener.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo credit: Ted Degener.

Based in Wisconsin and endowed by the Kohler Co. – widely familiar for its logo on porcelain plumbing fixtures – the Kohler Foundation works to preserve art environments, vernacular architecture and entire bodies of work created by self-taught artists. Yoho and her associates at the foundation had been aware of Pasaquan for more than a decade, thanks largely to correspondence initiated by the PPS board. After receiving their report, Yoho arranged to visit the site, where she spent two days with members of the society’s board and others. Following several months of negotiations and research the Kohler Foundation agreed to make St. EOM’s masterwork a priority and the PPS ceded ownership of Pasaquan to the foundation.

Since the 1970s, Kohler has preserved seven environments in Wisconsin and expanded its efforts into other states, taking on sites in Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, and Ohio. Work on Pasaquan, its first Georgia project, began in the spring of 2014 and was carried out by a team of national preservation experts, the local contractors they hired, and volunteers including student interns. It was a sustained effort that took a little more than two years and several million dollars, no doubt, although the Kohler Foundation doesn’t disclose the financial cost of their preservation efforts. It proved to be the foundation’s largest and most complex project to date, according to Yoho, who said that none of the foundation’s previous projects has had the impact or reach of the Pasaquan restoration. In keeping with its policy of gifting its preserved sites to non-profit groups in their local areas, the foundation conveyed ownership to the Columbus State University (CSU) Foundation, whose parent university is in nearby Columbus, Georgia. Several members of CSU’s art faculty had been involved with Pasaquan for a number of years, and Mike McFalls, a professor in the department, is now the site’s director, in charge of maintenance, operation, and programming.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo credit: Ted Degener.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo credit: Ted Degener.

In addition to their work on St. EOM’s environment, the team from the Kohler Foundation packed a large selection of his freestanding artworks and shipped the work to its headquarters in Wisconsin for conservation and to be added to the collection of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan. The PPS had already placed examples of his work in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, the Hunter Museum of Art-Chattanooga, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Georgia’s Albany Museum of Art, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. (More information on the Kohler Foundation can be found here.)

Far from being forgotten or destroyed, as EOM sometimes feared it might, Pasaquan is being introduced to appreciative new audiences, and his creative legacy now seems assured for years come. The site’s restoration has received widespread publicity, and the Grand Reopening on October 22 was a big success on all counts. The event drew a crowd of interested parties from 32 states and 12 countries – about 2,200 people, according to the official estimate – enough to temporarily double the population of Buena Vista, the nearest town. Capping off a festive afternoon of perfect autumn weather and live music on the grounds was a rousing, appropriately idiosyncratic set by the legendary Col. Bruce Hampton, leading his current group the Madrid Express. Hampton was a longtime friend of St. EOM, and the two performed together on one occasion in Atlanta in 1984, when Hampton was fronting his band the Late Bronze Age.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo credit: Ted Degener.

St. EOM, Pasaquan. Photo credit: Ted Degener.

Columbus State University has centralized information about Pasaquan on its new website, and set a schedule of times when the site is open to the public (Thursdays through Saturdays 10 a.m.to 5 p.m.). There’s no admission charge, but suggested donations range from $3 for students to $10 for adults. Pasaquan is located at 238 Eddie Martin Road, Buena Vista, GA 31808.

Finally, on a related note, St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan, originally published by the Jargon Society, is scheduled for re-release next year in a 30th-anniversary paperbound edition from the University of Georgia Press. One of my aims in that project was to bring more widespread attention to Pasaquan and its value as a unique place worth saving. A new edition promises to focus further attention on this marvel of vernacular art, architecture and state-of-the-art preservation.