Columbus State University Keeps Eddie Owens Martin's Artistic Fantasy Alive at Pasaquan
In the 1950s, when Cathy Fussell was a child, she and her family moved back to her father’s hometown of Buena Vista, Georgia. While she was growing up, she says, both her parents encouraged her to be curious, to “look for the odd thing.” So, at a local Halloween carnival one year, it' was no surprise that Fussell and her mother were drawn to the site of a fortune teller, dressed in full regalia.
“My mother just jumped all over wanting to know who this was and what it was about,” Fussell says.
The man, it turned out, had also recently moved back to the area and taken over his family’s land following a sprawling, years-long journey, and was on track toward becoming something of a local legend.
Fussell says that around the time of the Halloween festival, Eddie Owens Martin would have been starting to put together what eventually became the most notable element of his artistic legacy: a fantastical 7-acre art environment known as Pasaquan. Fussell’s family lived nearby and got to know Martin a little bit as neighbors, and she remembers the first statues popping up on the property. Over time, Pasaquan blossomed into an array of brightly colored surfaces and sculptures, a place that—according to Fussell and several other people who are intimately familiar with it—can only be fully grasped and understood, both in terms of scale and emotion, in situ.
Martin lived at Pasaquan until his death in 1986, after which local preservationists did all they could to maintain the site before the property eventually passed into the careful hands of Columbus State University, whose faculty and students continue to preserve and restore it to this day. In March, Pasaquan became part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program, along with six other sites.
The Religion of St. EOM
Martin, who later dubbed himself St. EOM, grew up in Buena Vista before running away to New York City at age 14, with only an eighth-grade education. There may have been multiple reasons for his departure. Mike McFalls, an art professor at Columbus State who also serves as the director of Pasaquan, says it’s possible Martin—whom McFalls believes may have identified as queer if he were alive today—never felt like he fit in in the small community. Fussell, meanwhile, says that although most people she grew up around always spoke highly of Martin, he had conflict with his abusive father. But Martin wasn't just leaving Buena Vista behind—the venture to New York also allowed Martin to explore his own identity and artistic passions.
He lived many lives in New York, including that of a gambler, drag queen, and fortune teller (a trade he kept up after returning to Georgia). The self-taught Martin also developed his art in the city, and his early drawings in New York showed the nascent stages of the colorful world he would go on to create at Pasaquan.
At some point in the 1930s, McFalls explains, Martin fell quite ill and reporting having had a vision of a peaceful 8-foot-tall being with “arms the size of watermelons.” He called this ethereal lifeforce a Pasaquoyan, and these beings became the heartbeat of his artwork, the foundation of his own personal religion, Pasaquoyanism, and the reason he returned home to build Pasaquan.
Pasaquoyanism was based on Martin’s utopic vision of a world in which people of all races, backgrounds, and identities could live harmoniously. The images and symbols he conjured up—which can be seen all over Pasaquan—borrowed heavily from African, Native American, and Pre-Colombian Mexican traditions, as well as the writings of James Churchward, who created the myth of a lost continent in the Pacific Ocean called Mu.
McFalls says he faced a dilemma while trying to figure out how to present and interpret such artistic appropriation.
“I do think we have to talk about it,” he says. “And what we often do is talk about how he has appropriated, and where we know he’s appropriated, and point that out.”
Ultimately, though, McFalls says Martin was aware that he was utilizing the work of other cultures—even if he wouldn’t have contemplated the idea of appropriation in the modern sense—and believed that he was presenting it in a celebratory manner.
Understanding the Vision
Cathy Fussell’s husband, Fred—who got to know Martin over the years during his tenure working at the Columbus Museum—says that although Martin had “no qualms” about referencing other traditions in his work, the artist was extremely creative and committed to his vision.
Visitors have varied reactions to Pasaquan, Cathy Fussell says. She explains that Fred—though he cares greatly for the place—is a painter himself and finds that he cannot work on the grounds, because there’s too much going on. Cathy (who is a fiber artist), for her part, finds the experience calming, even ripe for meditation, which Martin himself practiced on the property.
When he first visited Pasaquan as a teenager, Charles Fowler, a Columbus State alum who has worked at the site for several years and currently serves as its groundskeeper, wasn’t all that impressed. But the next time he toured the place, he learned more about Martin and the historical context, which changed his viewpoint.
“That added a lot more layers,” Fowler says. “I gave myself a good kicking for being dismissive.”
Now Fowler is the one who takes people on tours of the grounds and entertains visitors with tales of Martin. He says he views the artist as an inspiration and has noticed that people who may be searching for meaning in their own lives are affected by Martin’s story.
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Myth and Reality
There are many potentially tall tales about St. EOM. Some of these, Fowler says, highlight his generosity and the love people felt for him, while others show that he was sometimes feared. For example, a story spread locally that he had trained rattlesnakes to respond to his call, which no doubt would have served as a warning to some folks to stay away.
Fred Fussell says he can neither confirm nor deny the snake story, but Martin did have two massive—and very protective—German Shepherds named Nina and Boo, who were always by his side. Martin once told Fussell that he had nothing to fear from the pair as long as “you ain’t got no evil thoughts in your head.” Fussell jokes that he cleared up his mind quickly after hearing that.
Martin’s persona and the fact that he lived geographically isolated from the rest of Buena Vista may have suggested someone who wanted to remain mysterious and elusive, but Cathy Fussell says he was anything but an outsider. She says he participated in all kinds of community events, dressing in full costume for Halloween, the Fourth of July, and town meetings.
So while it came as a surprise to Buena Vista local, it makes sense that, after Martin died by suicide in 1986, he left the property to a loose-knit local historical society, members of which he had become close with over the years after they featured Pasaquan on a home tour in the area.
The Work Continues
Fred Fussell helped lead the charge to preserve the place. Fairly quickly, the Marion County Historical Society gained 501(c)(3) status, but several members, Fussell says, did not have the interest nor the means to focus on Pasaquan. So those who were dedicated to its preservation formed a separate group—the Pasaquan Preservation Society.
Fussell spent the next several years writing grant proposals, some of which were successful. The group received money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Knight Foundation. The funding, along with an enthusiastic volunteer corps, helped them maintain the site as well as they could until they struck gold with the Kohler Foundation in 2014.
At that point, PPS gifted the site to Kohler, which oversaw a two-year, multimillion-dollar restoration project. Afterwards, the property was transferred into the ownership of Columbus State University, whose students and alumni had aided Kohler’s efforts. There is still need for upkeep to this day—particularly when it comes to the site’s elements-exposed paint, which faded after the previous restoration. The repainting efforts have provided Columbus State student interns an opportunity for hands-on preservation work they may not have had elsewhere.
“I’m just so thrilled with what CSU is doing,” Cathy Fussell says.
Fowler adds that the work gives the students a sense of ownership of the site, while also showing them that there are careers in the arts outside of producing their own work.
Pasaquan has also put on film screenings, exhibits, and live events, including an annual springtime music festival called Pasafest—which, despite inclement weather, was considered a success this year. Pasaquan-branded coffee blend, beer, and rum are also for sale at local businesses. The goal of these creative and entrepreneurial endeavors is to spread the word about Martin's legacy as an artist.
“I think he’s just as important as, say, an Andy Warhol,” Fowler says. “Maybe he just wasn’t recognized.”
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