THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Nathan Worcester
It’s 2018, which means that the right-thinking among us see most art as the extension of some underlying trauma. This fad is reflected in the current packaging of Eddie Owens Martin, an outsider artist whose work is celebrated in the Intuit Art Center’s exhibition, “In the Land of Pasaquan: The Story of Eddie Owens Martin.” Then again, the facts of Martin’s life do support a central role for trauma. His 1986 suicide note read: “No one is to blame but me and my past.”
St. Eom in a frenzy
Born in 1908 to a physically abusive Georgia sharecropper, Martin fled to New York City at age 14, where he survived as a male prostitute. After a series of hallucinatory experiences during the 1930s, Martin came to see himself as the sole ambassador of the Pasaquan civilization, as well as of a body of beliefs that he called “Pasaquoyanism.”
During one of Martin’s experiences, a voice told him to start going by the name “St. EOM.” Now a full-on holy fool, Martin grew out his hair and beard, clothed himself in long, flowing robes, and started to create the folk art and artifacts that would, he rightly prophesied, outlive him. By the late 1940s, Martin was paying his bills by working as a fortune teller on 42nd Street in Manhattan. When his mother died, Martin inherited her farmhouse and a few acres of land. In 1957, he moved back to Georgia, where he recruited a new clientele for his fortune telling business. He used the proceeds of his prognostications to transform his inheritance into a real-life version of Pasaquan.
Entrance to Pasaquan
In addition to redesigning the property’s 1885 farmhouse, Martin and his assistants constructed an array of totems, walkways, and other religiously-tinged buildings and murals. These were anointed by can after can of brightly-colored house paint. Intuit’s exhibition, which focuses on Martin’s paintings, includes some quasi-heraldic shields made of scored and molded concrete. They look like they may have been lopped off the side of a Pasaquan pagoda.
As the “Land of Pasaquan” grew more lavish, it began to attract visitors, including former President Jimmy Carter, who had returned to nearby Plains after losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. Martin did not hesitate to offer Carter his own theories about how that had happened: “I told [Carter] that Reagan’s got just what this country wants: a good head o’hair and a mean line o’ talk.”
Though certainly removed from the mainstream, Martin’s work also differs from Art Brut as defined by that term’s creator, French painter Jean Dubuffet. In the gallery text for the first exhibition of Art Brut, Dubuffet argued that such work is vital precisely because it is free of the pretentiousness, trend-hopping, andunoriginality that, in his opinion, characterized high art: “[M]imicry, contrary to what happens among intellectuals, has little or no part, so that their authors draw all (subjects, choice of the used materials, means of transposition, rhythms, ways of writing, etc.) of their own heart and not cliches of classical art or fashionable art.”
Shields and an unnamed person of Pasaquan.
Martin, however, sometimes appears to be more self-conscious and self-consciously imitative than should be the case for “raw” artists, outsider artists, intuitive artists, or whatever else you want to call those among the unwashed masses who are not deemed insiders by the art world.
One painting of a Pasaquoyan woman seems like a reference to Gauguin’s Tahitians, albeit one constrained by the artist’s technical shortcomings (judging by their faces, the people of Pasaquan are a race of leering marionettes). Two watercolors, A Profile of a Pasaquoyan and A Pair of Pasaquoyans, look like Martin’s slightly cracked rendition of 18th or 19th century anthropological sketches from a natural history museum. This makes perfect sense since Martin’s marijuana- and sex-fueled vision of Pasaquan was guided by Olmec, Mayan, Polynesian, and other non-Western artifacts that he encountered in the museums of New York City, as well as by then-popular fictional treatments of Atlantis and Mu (promoted by occultist James Churchward, Mu was the Pacific Ocean equivalent of Atlantis).
In an article in BOMB Magazine, Martin biographer Tom Patterson calls Martin “an autodidact country cousin” of Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller. This comparison is even more apt than it may initially seem. A grandnephew of Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller and two-time Harvard expellee, Bucky Fuller personifies the “insider” of who might well have ended up an “outsider” had he not been born to the right family. Though Martin is not the inverse of Fuller, he does resist Dubuffet’s definition and remind us of the limitations of “insider” and “outsider” as aesthetic categories.
Martin’s output, though original, resonates in part because it is so clearly syncretic and thus reflective of certain readily discernible influences. Interestingly, Martin was pacing the streets of Manhattan at the same time as another culture-mixing outsider from the provinces, the blind Viking street musician Moondog. In a Facebook message, Patterson confirmed that Martin saw Moondog on the streets of New York City but indicated that the two were not well-acquainted.
No one but Moondog, born Thomas Louis Hardin in rural Kansas, could have come up with “snake time,” his oo-yat-su instrument, or any of his other innovations. Yet his sound was steeped in Native American music, swing, and the environmental noises that made their way into his expressive vocabulary and recordings.
Pasaquan too was forged in the crucible of Martin’s strange, deranged, and quite often pained experience of life on this planet. Yet for all that Martin’s work lacks, it is full of joy, which is somewhat redemptive. Moreover, for all that Martin suffered, he certainly found the time and energy to be productive; the beaded necklaces, concrete discs, hammered brass face, and other artifacts on display at the Intuit Art Center are just a tiny fraction of what can be found at the Pasaquan site in Marion County, Georgia.
Necklaces, a hammered brass face, and other artifacts from the Land of Pasaquan.
These works show the depth and authenticity of Martin’s quite literal religious commitment to his (quite literal) vision of Pasaquan. If unquestionable authenticity is what really distinguishes outsider artists from today’s insider artists, that doesn’t necessarily speak well for the insiders.
Nathan Worcester is a writer, editor, and decidedly independent scholar. He’d like to think of himself as an outsider, which probably means he’s really an insider.