I think I’m unusually sympathetic to cults. Not all of them. Obviously Jim Jones was an asshole. Most of the time though, when I watch a documentary or footage from cults of years pass and look at someone obviously a con-man or suffering from delusions or both, I can’t help but think… “but what if they were right?”. Heaven’s Gate could all be laughing at us from their comet. Pasaquan never housed what could widely be considered a cult, but certainly some of the elements were there, mainly in its builder, born Eddie Owens Martin, and known later in life as Saint Eom.
Pasaquan is really the story of Eddie Owens Martin, and his transformation into Saint Eom and building a suitable home for himself as Saint Eom.
Born in tiny rural Buena Vista, Georgia in 1908, Eddie left his home, rumored to be abusive, at the age of 14. He travelled to New York City during the height of the roaring 20’s. The hitchhiking journey took him through nearby Atlanta up through Washington D.C. Once in New York he came out as homosexual and found work as a hustler, bartender, and gambler, and began creating an identity as a drag queen. He began to tell fortunes using his dramatic flair for money in the 40’s at the age of 37.
His mother died in 1957 and Martin returned home to her Buena Vista farmhouse. He continued working as an oracle wearing elaborate costumes and headdresses after his return. Around that time he had his first vision. In his vision he was visited by beings from the future claiming that in their time all nationalities and religions had melded into one, calling themselves Pasaquoyans. In response, Martin changed his name to Saint Eom and became the Earth’s first Pasaquoyan.
Over the next thirty years he would work on converting the farmhouse into Pasaquan. His fortune telling helped bankroll the conversion of the farm house and the building of six major structures and numerous masonry walls around what I can only think to call the compound. According to the workers on the site, he primarily employed people of color from town to help with the building and paid the, $10 an hour, which is quite extraordinary, especially given the time frame of the 60’s and 70’s.
The art on the sight melds spiritual and artistic imagery from multiple cultures in the form of numerous mandalas and buildings inspired by pagodas, Native American cultural symbols, African and Mexican designs. Rooms that show paintings of environment appear to show lush jungle. He was also apparently influenced by Edward Churchward’s books about the lost Continent of Mu.
The result is a walkable art environment, coming across as sort of a psychedelic pre-Columbian wonderland, in the middle of rural Georgia. I can’t help but wonder what he was truly attempting to build here. Is this what everything looks like in the future when we’re all Pasaquoyans? Motifs include colorful kalescopic mandalas, mexican inspired pierced tin roofing and siding, human faces, and disembodied human torsos, obvious from their features belonging to men and women. (At least biologically, who knows what the future will bring.) In the center of the compound is what appears to be a sandbox. I have no idea if this originally served some other purpose like gardening or a fountain.
While there were people sharing the site over the course of Saint Eom’s life and it seems some semi ritualistic things occurred like chanting and speaking on the nature one his visions and beliefs about the future, Saint Eom seemed to have little interest in starting a cult-like community of Pasaquoyans. He appears to have legitimately spent most of his energy acting as an oracle to pay for build more of Pasaquan. He expressed frustration over his life less at people not believing in his idealized future and more in his lack of acceptance by the art community at large. Pasaquan itself, as a representation of his own personal future utopia and the enlightened spiritual beliefs that came along with it, remained his main mission until his death.
After declining health and a cancer diagnosis, Saint Eom took his own life in 1986. It’s difficult not to wonder how this decision connected to his overall mental health, but he would have been 78 at the time. After his death the site began to degrade. For the next 30 years the Pasaquan Preservation Society worked against the current to keep the site preserved. In 2014 the Kohler Foundation helped give the site a full renovation and it was reopened to the public in 2016.
While it is clear that Saint Eom was mentally ill, and his visions were a result of his illness, there’s that voice in my head pestering me again. Of course, may artists suffer from mental illness and its incredibly fascinating to see the functions of their minds in their work, everyone knows of Picasso’s blue period or Van Goghs earless self portrait. Pasaquan is fascinating in that way. It functions as a three dimensional interactive trip into a mentally ill mind. And it’s beautiful.
Is there something else here though? Doesn’t it feel a little bit magic? Is it unrealistic to think that in the future cultures and religions would have melded, I don’t think so. Its a utopian future view of course, but one humans could steer towards. Is it unrealistic to think that we would have levitations and travel technology which would make some of Pasaquan’s structures make a little more sense, like the way no matter how you approach the mandala building you have to step over a low wall somewhere? No, not entirely. Is this any different from a man in ancient Greece who saw Athena in the woods and labored to build a randomly places temple to her there? I don’t think so. For all it’s psychedelic appearance it still appeals to something we all experience; the desire to leave something behind us, a monument to our lives and how we lived. It speaks of a connection to the divine and a level of inspiration which we all crave a little of.
There have been studies done on people suffering from schitzophrenia that essentially show that they are immune to many optical illusions. There is a famous one involving a rotating mask, and when the mask rotates away from the normal viewer the brain edits it to make its appear convex like the front of the mask again. It apparently appears at it really is to schizophrenics. You might make the argument that their minds, refusing to edit things for how it thinks they should be seen, sees reality more clearly in that way, the way it actually is. So what if Saint Eom was mentally ill? Couldn’t it be that he was also right?
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