by Sam Sachs
The site of Pasaquan, full of strange colors, patterns and artistic symbols from all over the world, used to be a place of criticism and fear. The locals of Buena Vista, GA remember Eddie Owens Martin as a strange man, covered in bells and colors, with his hair sticking up straight into the sky. On his journeys into town, many viewed him with fascination and dread, unsure of which stories about him to believe, or if they should believe any at all. Known to be a fortune teller, artist and local oddity, Martin and his home were a source of wonder and consternation.
“I’d never seen anything like that. I was never raised to look at something like that,” Ms. Rogers continued, referring to the very present nude imagery of male and female genitalia, as well as the overall artistic aesthetic. Raised devoutly Christian, Ms. Rogers and many others in town had been raised to avoid what was viewed as controversial or sinful. Nudity and sex were private subjects, so Martin’s creations were seen as odd at best.
As the Grand Reopening of Pasaquan inches closer every day, the sleepy town of Buena Vista, GA sees not just art, but opportunity swinging towards them. Buena Vista is a small town in Marion County that’s fallen into an economic slump in recent years. The old economy in the town was based on a chicken harvesting factory run by Tyson Foods, Incorporated. Since the factory left the town in May 2015, the locals have fallen on hard times.
For the families in Buena Vista, Pasaquan presents not just an opportunity for Columbus State to preserve a local legacy, but it’s a chance for the town to raise itself up and better its economy. Despite this attitude in Buena Vista, there are challenges to focusing the economy around Pasaquan.
“We cannot go to the bank on one site for tourism, that’s why we have to go with the whole county,” said Debby Ford, the President of the Chamber of Commerce for Marion County. Following Ford’s attendance at an April 2014 Academy for Economic Development in Georgia, the workshop convinced the Marion County representative that tourism was the route to take to give Buena Vista and Marion County a fresh start economically.
The Kohler Foundation had agreed to a multi-million dollar restoration of Pasaquan the day before the Academy in 2014, said Ford. This gave the Regional Director of Tourism in Georgia, Chris Cannon, ideas on how to revitalize the area through increased tourism, leading to a focus on Pasaquan and other local historical spots such as the two Antebellum court houses present in the city. To make Pasaquan work for Buena Vista’s community though, Ford and other members of the local government would need to address both the mysticism of Pasaquan and the community’s misgivings and unease surround the artistic site.
“I prayed before I went in and when I came out every time I’d go to Pasaquan,” said Ms. Rogers, a founding member of the Pasaquan Preservation Society. Along with her husband, Dr. John S. Rogers, Ms. Rogers has spent the better part of two decades helping to maintain and restore the visionary site. Like other members of the community, Pasaquan wasn’t always viewed positively by Ms. Rogers, with fear and a lack of understanding influencing attitudes about the area and its creator.
Despite the negative views surrounding Pasaquan, Martin did have allies. While originally planning on leaving his home and artwork in the care of the Columbus Museum following his death, after his home was entered into the 1974 Tour of Homes for Buena Vista, GA, Martin changed his will to give the site to the Marion County Historical Society.
The problem with that was the society did not exist yet. “In 1986, when Eddie committed suicide, he left a will deeding all of Pasaquan to the Marion County Historic Preservation Society,” said Dr. Rogers, “but there wasn’t a society yet so we made it the next day in order to accept the site.” The Pasaquan Preservation Society was born out of this group in 1993, as the Marion County Historic Preservation Society started to focus on other areas in the county and the Pasaquan caretakers focused more on Martin’s works.
As Martin had lived virtually unknown to the government, his estate of $40,000 and the site and grounds of Pasaquan came to the notice of the Internal Revenue Service following his death in 1986. Unable to properly value the taxes he’d owed due to his lack of a social security number or any other filings, the IRS seized the monetary assets and left the site itself to the Pasaquan Preservation Society. Unfortunately, this removed any budget that they had to properly maintain the grounds and buildings, leading to the eventual state of disrepair that was found by Kohler and CSU’s restoration team.
To aid in the restoration efforts before Kohler came in, the Preservation Society had applied for and received three grants consisting of $5000, $3000 and another $5000 from Flint Energies, an electric co-operative plant in Houston, GA. The grants were put towards liability insurance, so that if visitors were injured on site while it was in extreme disrepair, the Society would have some coverage.
While the efforts to maintain the site began in earnest following the receipt of these grants, the majority of the repairs were more like putting band aids on gunshot wounds, impermanent and mostly stop-gap measures. Fred Fussell, at the time a director at the Columbus Museum and a man interested in preserving Martin’s legacy, having met him in his later life, approached Terri Yoho, Kohler’s Executive Director.
An outsider art enthusiast, Yoho reportedly told Fussell that Kohler was in the concrete business. As Pasaquan is constructed largely of concrete pieces, the match up of the Kohler Foundation to the restoration process was perfect, according to Dr. Rogers.
Once Kohler officially began restoration and promised the deed to CSU, the Pasaquan Preservation Society’s purpose changed. “Our mission changed from restoration to promoting Pasaquan and CSU,” said Dr. Rogers. The overall effect of the restoration of Pasaquan comes in on several levels for the town and CSU.
With the grand reopening happening on October 22, Ford expects thousands to flock to the site, celebrating both Martin’s legacy and the efforts made to preserve it. “This is the engine that’s driving the economy in Marion County,” said Ford. Indeed, with the Georgia Department of Commerce aiding in driving tourism towards Marion County as well as CSU and the Kohler Foundation providing services and a reason to go to Buena Vista, the overall economic effect could have a huge impact on the local area.