Maybe it will levitate: The works of Eddie Owens Martin

By Alicia B. Hill

It is rare for an art exhibit to inspire quite the level of mythos that the works of folk artist Eddie Owens Martin have achieved, but the works currently displayed in LaGrange and Buena Vista were made by a painter, sculptor and fortune teller from Marion County who is a local legend unto himself.

A brief review of Martin’s life swiftly turns up tales of snake charming, levitation, and celestial beings, and that is just the beginning.

Martin – or as he liked to call himself, Saint Eom – was a self-taught, Southern folk artist who took artistic inspiration from cultures around the world.  He was born in Georgia in 1922, but ran away to New York City at a young age and proceeded to make a living as a fortune teller, among other, more colorful ventures.

Martin returned to Georgia following his mother’s death in 1957, after more than 30 years in New York, and moved into a farmhouse that his mother had left him near Buena Vista.  He continued fortune telling in Georgia, and used the funds he earned to make his art, expand on what became his compound until his death in 1986.

“I think the authenticity of Eddie is probably the most important part,” said Pasaquan Director Michael McFalls. “That is what draws me to him. And I think that is the attraction to visionary art, folk art, there is a certain sense of authenticity to it that you know these people just make it because they have to.”

Martin studied art and painted during his time in New York, but he made very little from his art during his lifetime. This led him to make money in various other, sometimes illegal ways.

“You know, I don’t agree with all of his lifestyle, but he is an interesting character to say the least,” said Bobby Cammon, the LaGrange Art Museum Board of Governors President. “His life is a fiction novel. I can’t do that, and he could with nothing.”

After returning to Georgia, Martin had “visions of celestial beings” and began to make art inspired by different world religions, including mandalas, murals, and more than 900 feet of elaborately painted masonry walls that have only recently been restored, thanks to a partnership between the Kohler Foundation, the Pasaquan Preservation Society, and Columbus State University.  Much of his art is still unstudied and has drawn art students from across the country to study the methods of this small-town folk artist.

“This is actually new knowledge,” said McFalls.  “As a university, you have this pursuit for new knowledge, and I think that is why students are so interested (because) this is knowledge that there isn’t that much written about, and most of it is folklore.  There is not much scholarship around it, and as soon as I started this, I started getting calls from Ph.D. and (Masters of Arts) students asking, ‘Hey, can I come down there?’”

The LaGrange Art Museum’s Pasaquan exhibit features more than 83 of Martin’s works on paper that the museum received through a ten-year loan from Columbus State University.  Paintings, sculptures, regalia, adornments, and other art by St. Eom are also on display at the show, which is being curated by noted Georgia Humanities Scholar Fred Fussell.

“We have all these works that have never been seen,” said McFalls.  “We can’t show them (in Buena Vista), and we couldn’t really show them at (Columbus State) University, so we really thought the LaGrange Museum would be great stewards of these works.

“I think that is what I liked about the drawings – what attracted me to the drawings – as an artist,” McFalls continued. “They are the most immediate kind of form of art making for him. They are very intimate, and they are coming from those visions, and they happen very immediately.  They are very matter-of-fact, the way he is making them.  And there is something. They are a story. It’s a journey. It’s like his journal.”

The museum has framed and prepared the works for the show in LaGrange, but Briggs expressed hopes that the exhibit will be able to travel to other major museums after its showing at the LAM to earn money for the museum, following the example of the Norman Rockwell exhibit that opened at the museum in 2014.

“The purpose of the show is to learn a bit more about the artist,” said Karen Briggs, the LaGrange Art Museum’s Executive Director. “The story of Saint Eom. Who is he, crazy man that he is? Not just about the site, but who built the site.  So, our show is going to be quasi-chronological in that it is going to tell the story of his journey from his childhood in that area, to his life in New York, to back down again, to the progression through the building of Pasaquan.”

The most well-known written accounts of Martin’s life are a biographical piece by Tom Patterson for BOMB Magazine, following Martin’s death, and Patterson’s book titled “The Land of Pasaquan.” Both recount the colorful life of a man who never quite fit in and who inspired local legends, ranging from curses on trespassers to charming herds of local cats into riding with him in his car on his trips to the hardware store.

“This experience is challenging me to (ask) how can we be more genuinely creative,” said Briggs.  “How can I be more genuinely creative?  We are so constrained by what we deem as acceptable. (Visionary art) is art where someone didn’t have those constraints, and I think it is fascinating in a somewhat voyeuristic way that then bounces back at me that says, what would I create if I didn’t care what people thought of what I created?”

The LaGrange Art Museum plans to host the exhibit until August of this year. After that, museum officials hope that it will go on loan to other institutions.

“Who knows?  Maybe they’ll levitate,” joked Briggs of the exhibit.

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