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Pasaquan, Eccentric Artist's Georgia Home, Gets A Sprucing Up

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We give you a glimpse now of a hidden treasure tucked away in the countryside of Southwest Georgia. It's the home that local folk artist Eddie Owens Martin spent 30 years building. He called the place Pasaquan. After decades in decline, it's being restored, and Rickey Bevington of Georgia Public Broadcasting got a preview.

RICKEY BEVINGTON, BYLINE: Even experts have a tough time putting words to Pasaquan's dizzying maze of brightly colored walls, towering totems and giant faces and eyes peering out from the sides of huts and pagodas. Here's paint conservator Peter Schoenmann.

PETER SCHOENMANN: It looks like an archaeological site. It looks like you're at Easter Island, for example. You know, these totems are wild.

BEVINGTON: There's an obsessive quality to the 900 linear feet of hand-built walls, stairways and six major outbuildings that create, essentially, a four-acre obstacle course. A jumble of Western and Eastern imagery, from Christian crosses to Buddhist mandalas, cover every surface. Lauren Cantrell is getting a master's degree in art history at Georgia State University. She says it's unlike anything she's studied before.

LAUREN CANTRELL: It's a huge piece of American art.

BEVINGTON: It's built here in Buena Vista, nestled among the South Georgia pine trees filled with humming, summertime cicadas. Pasaquan is the home of Eddie Owens Martin. Martin called himself St. EOM and was a bit eccentric. In addition to being an artist, he was a fortune teller, drag queen and gambler. Peter Schoenmann says Martin spent from the 1950s until his death in 1986 hand-building what he considered to be his masterpiece.

SCHOENMANN: This is 30 years of someone's obsessive need to create something that's unlike anything that we've seen before.

BEVINGTON: And here's why. We typically think of art as pretty framed pictures, painted by formally educated artists, hanging on white museum walls. During Martin's lifetime, academics rejected his work as amateur homemade junk. But times change, and today's scholars place Pasaquan in the relatively new school called visionary art. Rebecca Alban Hoffberger is director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

REBECCA ALBAN HOFFBERGER: We define visionary as, foremost, an expression that revels in the creative experience itself. And that often is the result of when the life experience is too big for words. It comes out as art.

BEVINGTON: The Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation has hired dozens of experts to restore the property. Preserving visionary and other non-traditional art like Pasaquan has been the focus of the organization since the 1970s. It's vital to the nation's artistic and cultural heritage, says Leslie Umberger, a curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

LESLIE UMBERGER: It's becoming much more widely recognized that in a citizen democracy, we need to have representation of art by all of those people, that all forms of art can be valid and can have meaning and can offer something into this bigger story of who we are as a country.

BEVINGTON: Telling that story also means capturing art where it was made, nestled among the Georgia pines. And hopefully people will see it as Martin wanted them to when it reopens to the public next spring. For NPR News, I'm Rickey Bevington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.