Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pasaquan: After Extended Conservation Efforts, Georgia's Visionary Art Site Reopens

As the official state museum of art, the Georgia Museum of Art is fundamentally engaged with artistic developments happening throughout the state of Georgia. Recently, Pasaquan, an important Georgian visionary art site, has reopened. Located in rural Georgia, about seven miles outside of Buena Vista and about 30 miles outside of Columbus, Pasaquan is a psychedelic, pseudo-religious art complex featuring over 900 feet of painted walls and situated on more than seven acres of land. The site was conceived of and constructed by visionary artist Eddie Owens Martin (or St. EOM as he referred to himself) in the late 1950s. After St. EOM’s death in 1986 the site fell into relative disrepair with fading paint and structural concerns, but as of October 2016, the environment has been reopened to the public in a newly restored form, now reflecting its original state and Owens’s original artistic vision.
Pasaquan, 2017. Photo: Hillary Brown
“I’d recommend people go ‘while the paint’s fresh.’ That’s what Alan Rothschild, the chair of the museum’s Board of Advisors and a Columbus resident, told me, and I think it was smart advice.” 

Eddie Owens Martin

Owens was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, in 1908 to a poor sharecropping family. He ran away at age 14 to live in New York City where he first began studying and creating art. In his 20s, Owens experienced the first of his fever-induced dreams in which he was visited by giant figures from the future. In this first vision, the figures told him, “You’re gon’ be the start of somethin’ new, and you’ll call yourself Saint EOM, and you’ll be a Pasaquoyan — the first one in the world.” In 1957 after his mother’s death, the newly consecrated St. EOM moved back to his mother’s 18th century farmhouse and there began constructing the Pasaquan site onto existing structures. St. EOM explained that he “built this place to have something to identify with. Here I can be in my own world, with my temples and designs and the spirit of God. I can have my own spirits and my own thoughts.”

St. EOM (Eddie Owens Martin). Photo: Columbus State University

St. EOM’s Pasaquoyan aesthetic and spiritualism is defined by an interesting blend of various cultural motifs. His wall paintings reference both eastern and western major religions, featuring large-scale mandalas and crosses. He used masonry and bright colors to depict human forms and geometric patterns, a practice reminiscent of the bright colors and angular geometry found in ancient Aztec and other pre-Columbian works of art. He was also inspired by Edward Churchward’s writing on the fabled “Lost Continent of Mu” and the concept of a singular and peaceful ancient civilization. He created Pasaquan as a representation of his optimistic vision of the future as a cultural blend of peoples in a state of bright and fantastic unity. St. EOM has stated that his one-man religion, Pasaquoyanism, “has to do with the Truth, and with Nature, and the Earth, and man’s lost rituals.”1 He funded and built Pasaquan almost single-handedly with money he received from fortune-telling.

Great Goddess mural from the site of Teotihuacán, Mexico. St. EOM's work resembles
that of the ancient Aztecs and Mesoamericans. Image: Wikipedia
Unfortunately, although skilled, St. EOM was not a trained construction worker and painter, and much of his work was left damaged after long exposure to the elements. When he passed away in 1986, the Pasaquan Preservation Society (PPS) took over the site in a non-profit effort to conserve this valuable work of art. Despite continuous efforts, the PPS lacked the funds to properly conserve the complex and it gradually deteriorated. In 2014, the Kohler Foundation stepped in to help with the renovations, bringing conservators from all over the U.S. to help with termite damage, fading paint and structural concerns in each of the six main buildings and surrounding walls. The project took roughly two years to complete and in late 2015, the conservators completed the process and donated the site to Columbus State University, which now oversees its preservation.

Wall under conservation, 2015. Photo: David Anderson, Columbus State University Archives
After conservation, 2017. Photo: Hillary Brown
Pasaquan is currently open for public visits from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The site is closed during holidays and for the months of December and July. Visitors are asked for a suggested contribution of $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and $3 for students. Hillary Brown, our director of communications, recently visited the renovated site after wanting to visit for years. “I’m really glad I waited until after the restoration was complete. It’s a truly special place and worth a long drive from anywhere,” Hillary recounts, “I’d recommend people go ‘while the paint’s fresh.’ That’s what Alan Rothschild, the chair of the museum’s Board of Advisors and a Columbus resident, told me, and I think it was smart advice.”

Jamie Brener 
Publications Intern

Tom Patterson, St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan: The Life and Time and Art of Eddie Owens Martin (Jargon Society: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1987).

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Highlights from the Permanent Collection: "Medicine Woman" by Beverly Buchanan

Beverly Buchanan died in 2015, but her art lives on. Born in Fuquay, North Carolina, in 1940, she pursued a career in science and medicine, with master’s degrees in parasitology and public health from Columbia University, New York. In the early 1970s, she shifted to a different path, studying at the Art Students League and beginning to make paintings and sculptures in a variety of media. Her success, especially with her series of works depicting shacks in the rural South, led her to pursue art full time and move back to the South. Among other places, she lived in Athens, Georgia, from 1987 to 2003.

Installation view of "Medicine Woman" at Brooklyn Museum, 2016. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

"Medicine Woman" is gift from the artist, facilitated by her friend and fellow Athenian Prudence Lopp before Buchanan’s death. It stands out among her work even as it clearly comes from the same hand, for “Medicine Woman” is much larger than the scale at which Buchanan usually worked. It uses found objects as in her other sculptures, but in wider variety, and she applied copious decoration to the figure, which also has a name: Evelyn.

In 1993, the artist wrote: “I was always looking for something for ‘HER.’ Something to add and mix [to this] ‘Healer.’” The sculpture took the artist almost seven months to complete and includes wood, glass, textile, paper, plastic, paint, stone, ceramic, foam core, masking tape, metal wire and aluminum foil. Some of these objects were adhered with glue that was failing regularly, but Buchanan was elderly and unable to perform the conservation herself. For this reason, "Medicine Woman" has never been on view at the Georgia Museum of Art. When the Brooklyn Museum approached the Georgia Museum of Art about borrowing “Medicine Woman” for its large retrospective exhibition “Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals,” which closed earlier this month, its staff agreed to cover the costs of conservation.

Amy Jones Abbe (pictured left), a professional conservator based in Athens who has performed conservation on many other objects for the Georgia Museum of Art, agreed to undertake the job. Working from a few historic photographs and consulting extensively with Shawnya Harris, the museum’s Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art, Jones Abbe first stabilized the sculpture and then used different glues to reattach objects that had fallen off. She then added a few minimally invasive screws and a piece of heat-treated pine
to hold the work firmly in place. A bit of sleuthing allowed her and Harris to determine where nearly every detached element had been placed originally and, essentially, put the jigsaw puzzle back together. Jones Abbe’s painstaking work should pay dividends, not only for visitors to the Brooklyn Museum, but also for future visitors to the Georgia Museum of Art, where “Medicine Woman” can now be displayed.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Althea Sumpter: Recipient of the 2017 Lilian C. Lynch Citation

Each year, the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia presents the Lilian C. Lynch Citation to an African American leader for his or her contributions to African-American cultural education and service. This year, at the annual Black History Month Dinner, the award was given to Althea Sumpter for her work as a professor, artist, Emmy-nominated producer and ethnographer. 

Althea Sumpter at the 2004 Fellowship of Friends
of African Descent gathering. Photo credit: Vanessa Julye
Sumpter, a native of St. Helena Island, South Carolina, uses digital media technology to combine stories of her own Gullah Geechee culture with traditional historical, genealogical and documentary research. She is a founding member of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission and has served as its vice-chair and chair. She holds a doctoral degree (with concentrations in African/African American Studies and New Media Technology) from Clark Atlanta University, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of South Carolina. Formerly the director of media services and production at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, Sumpter has also taught at Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University and Clark Atlanta University.

Sumpter with curator Dale Couch
At the awards ceremony, Dale Couch, the museum’s curator of decorative arts and long-time friend of Sumpter, had the privilege of presenting her with the award. In her acceptance speech, Sumpter urged the audience to listen to their elders and record the stories they tell to create continuity between generations and document underrepresented cultures.

The late Ms. Lynch was a charter member of the Athens chapter of The Links, Incorporated and was dedicated to the arts as an advocate for cultural education in the Athens community. The Links, Incorporated, is a national volunteer service organization for African American women that focuses on the arts as one of its five key areas of service.

Previous recipients of the Lynch citation include Natasha Trethewey, Jeanne Cyriaque, Rudolph Byrd and Michael Thurmond.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Larry Walker: Thompson Award Winner of 2017

Larry Walker, Search Through Time, 2002–2004
The Georgia Museum of Art is pleased to present artist Larry Walker with the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Award. The prize is given annually to an African American leader from Athens or northeast Georgia who has supported his or her community and the arts.

Walker is an esteemed professor emeritus and former director of the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design at Georgia State University. An artist and an educator born in Franklin, Georgia, he has participated in more than 200 group exhibitions and more than 40 solo exhibitions, which featured his abstract paintings, drawings and mixed-media works. One of his mixed-media works is on display in the Georgia Museum of Art’s permanent collection galleries. Walker is also a recipient of Atlanta Contemporary’s Nexus Award.

Shawnya Harris and artist Larry Walker
... the arts are about learning to live ...

At the awards ceremony, curator Shawnya Harris discussed Walker’s importance as an artist and a life-long educator before presenting him with the award in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 200 attendees. Walker then delivered remarks in which he addressed the power of art and said “the arts are about learning to live,” receiving a standing ovation.

Brenda and Larry Thompson
The Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Award is named for the couple who donated 100 works by African American artists from their collection to the museum and endowed a curatorial position (held by Shawnya L. Harris) to focus on art by African American and African artists. Larry Thompson teaches at the University of Georgia School of Law and is a UGA Foundation Trustee. Brenda Thompson is the chair-elect of the museum’s Board of Advisors. Previous recipients of the Thompson award include artists Emma Amos, Harold Rittenberry, Charles Pinckney and Amalia Amaki.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

"To Spin a Yarn": A Brief History of Women and Distaffs

With Women’s History Month upon us, it seems an ideal moment to feature one of our current exhibits, “To Spin a Yarn: Distaffs, Folk Art and Material Culture,” on view through Sunday, April 16. Distaffs are inherently feminine objects; the word acts as both a noun, giving a name to the tool used to hold unspun fiber in the spinning process, and an adjective, to define a feminine aspect or association. Featured in the exhibition are about 40 distaffs hailing from Russia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, France, Germany, Albania, Greece, Serbia and Bosnia. Despite the geographic lines and design differences that separate these objects, the distaff retains its cultural significance across borders.

To better understand the cultural importance of the distaff, it may be helpful to consider representations of women and distaffs throughout history. Images of women spinning are not unfamiliar — they appear in paintings, carvings, stained glass windows, frescoes and illuminated manuscripts, among other artistic mediums. Frances Biscoglio, in her research on medieval representations of women spinning, parses out two separate perceptions of spinners: one created by the “hierarchal ordering of the medieval world” that views the spinner as an “ideal woman: charitable, industrious, obedient, a model of virtue, her time and space circumscribed by the patriarchal society that asserted its power”; and the other a more mythical interpretation of spinning that perceives the spinner as “the creator, life-giver, intermediary, and source of wisdom.”1

Karl Müller, Holy Family with John the Baptist, 1866

The notion of spinning as a sort of cosmic act, of taking formless fiber and creating something from it, is one that appears in classical mythology and also in the bible. The Virgin Mary is commonly portrayed spinning and is an interesting figure with which to consider the two separate representations Biscoglio discusses. Proverbs 31:19–22 says:

She stretches out her hands to the distaff,
And her hands grasp the spindle.

She extends her hand to the poor,
And she stretched out her hands to the needy.

She is not afraid of the snow for her household,
For all her household are clothed with scarlet.

She makes coverings for herself;
Her clothing is fine linen and purple.

A Serbian painted distaff
with circular inset mirror.

This excerpt follows the heading, “Description of a Worthy Woman.” The association of spinning to altruism and diligence is not new, and is the mark of a worthy woman both in the bible and in medieval times. Paintings in which Mary spins are interesting, then, for the ways in which she seems to fulfill both archetypes of the hard working, obedient woman and the cosmic woman holding fate in her hands. In Karl Müller’s painting, Holy Family with John the Baptist, Mary sits to the side spinning while Joseph performs the duties of a carpenter. They are engaged in their menial daily tasks, but Mary gazes towards the center of the scene in contemplation. Biscoglio suggests that Mary inhabits a “role as intermediary between God and man, binding the divine and human together to forge a new reality” and that “portraits of the Virgin which show the spun thread passing across the center of her body demonstrate her powerful role in the divine plan.”2 For this reason, she is a unique representation of a spinner.

The distaff during this time, and continuing throughout history, manages to assume two almost contradictory meanings. It is on one hand a symbol of obedient domesticity at the hands of a patriarchal society and, on the other, a symbol of female power. The woman holding a distaff in art, then, is an intentional, yet difficult to interpret, representation of femininity.

Considering the many (distinctly feminine) associations attached with spinning, it is unsurprising that distaffs themselves occupy such an important space within different cultures. While the style and décor may change from Russia to France to Serbia, distaffs are items of great importance — women might receive two in their lifetime, and they were passed down between generations. Commissioned oftentimes as engagement gifts, a market emerged for the creation of distaffs, and they became increasingly elaborate. In the original exhibition catalogue, Michael Ricker says of the decorative element of the distaff: “a beautiful distaff reminds the spinner, in a sense, that they too are beautiful and appreciated.”3 When engrossed in such a tedious task, this reminder was probably much appreciated. An interesting addition to a couple of Serbian distaffs is the incorporation of a mirror — maybe this was a way to more explicitly remind a spinner of her beauty.

Ultimately tools of great womanly strength, Ricker remarks that distaffs are simultaneously “a tool, sculpture, and a work of architecture.”4 As a tool in their utility, distaffs increased the functionality and productivity of spinning. As a sculpture in its beautiful decor and three-dimensionality, a distaff is artful. As a work of architecture, distaffs contributed to the structure of both the home and the textile market. These are objects that paint portraits of many different cultures’ women and their fortitude.

Sarah Dotson
Publications Intern

1. Biscoglio, Frances M., “’Unspun’ Heroes: Iconography of the Spinning Woman in the Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval And Renaissance Studies 25, no. 2 (1995): 163–176.
2. Ibid., 171.
3. Ricker, Michael T., To Spin a Yarn: Distaffs, Folk Art and Material Culture (Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013).
4. Ibid.