ABOUT A TWO-HOUR drive southwest of downtown Atlanta—set amid red-clay hills and pine forests well beyond the highway sprawl—lies one of America’s strangest outdoor art sites. Pasaquan, a wild architectural mashup, looks like some ancient Cambodian temple complex as reimagined by an uninhibited Marvel superhero. Its series of buildings and outdoor walls range across several acres of former farmland, blanketed with vivid paintings of crosses, Buddhist mandalas and astral beings—many with coneheads and multihued complexions. Some visitors find Pasaquan entrancing, others disorientingly bizarre.
Eddie Martin, who began building it in the 1950s, was one of two granddaddies of outsider art (a more eccentric form of folk art) who once called rural George home. The other, Howard Finster, first planted his Paradise Garden, a cartoonish biblical hallucination, in the 1970s. After the two men died—the former in 1986, the latter in 2001—the art sites fell into disrepair. But extensive preservation efforts, fueled by a renewed interest in Southern folk art, have revitalized both properties in recent years, as well as a few other installations throughout the state.
It’s always been dodgy to identify someone as an outsider artist. Most candidates’ work is so idiosyncratic that even fans aren’t quite sure who fits into the category. Though rejected by the “legitimate” art world as untrained and lacking pedigree, several of these artists rose to national prominence over the years, often after they died. Henry Darger, for instance, spent three decades isolated in his Chicago apartment painting watercolors and collages of an imaginary world; a construction worker named Simon Rodia built the monumentally whimsical Watts Towers in his Los Angeles backyard from the 1920s to the 1950s.
The Deep South, and especially Georgia’s countryside, produced a bumper crop of these Outsider artists, many of whom turned nondescript rural properties into startling creations. Here, a guide to a few of the sites in and around Atlanta that are well worth checking out or planning a day trip around.
HIGH MUSEUM OF ART, Atlanta, Ga.
Home to one of the South’s largest art collections, Atlanta’s High Museum devotes several rooms on its top-floor “Skyway” to works by leading outsider (or “self-taught”) artists. In addition to pieces by Finster, you’ll find works by Bill Traylor (1853-1949), an Alabaman painter whose simple silhouettes keenly document rural life, and Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), a Georgia native, who specialized in vivid paintings of fantastical people and animals.
PASAQUAN, Buena Vista, Ga.
Eddie Martin’s 7-acre psychedelic art installation reopened in 2016 after a meticulous restoration—a joint effort between the Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation and Georgia’s Columbus State University. Born on this farm, just outside the small town of Buena Vista, in 1908, Martin moved to New York City in 1922, fleeing an abusive father. He eked out a living as a male prostitute, soothsayer and marijuana peddler, before moving back to Georgia in the 1950s, inheriting the farm after his parents had died.
For decades, Martin, festooned in an Indian headdress, transformed the property, turning the humble 1885 farmhouse into a temple full of odd sculptures and murals awash in neon-bright oranges, yellows, greens, reds and blues. He told a biographer: “I built this place to have something to identify with, ‘cause there’s nothin’ I see in this society that I identify with or desire to emulate.”
The artist produced thousands of works, from paintings to jewelry—many still on view at the property. To earn money for paint and building supplies, Martin, who called himself St. EOM (for Eddie Owens Martin), held seances and exorcisms, and gave psychic readings. “He was a guru with no followers,” said Charles Fowler, the property’s current caretaker, who insists Martin still haunts the farm. A two-hour drive southwest from Atlanta, pasaquan.columbusstate.edu
MUSEUM OF WONDER, Seale, Ala.
Across the Chattachoochee River, in the tiny Alabama town of Seale, sits artist Butch Anthony’s Museum of Wonder. It’s a free, drive-through art installation, a collection of shipping containers turned into window displays of found art, taxidermy, animal horns and old photographs. Don’t expect the spit and polish—or helpful explanations—you’ll find at the High Museum or even Pasaquan. The Museum of Wonder is a little rough around the edges, but if you’re lucky, the artist himself might be wandering around to field questions. About a two-hour drive southwest of Atlanta, museumofwonder.com
PARADISE GARDEN, Summerville, Ga.
In the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Paradise Garden occupies an old homestead in Summerville, a sort of hard-luck Mayberry. There, Finster, a retired Baptist preacher born in 1916, said he was moved, in 1976, to “paint sacred art” and he did so with gusto. He created more than 46,000 pieces of art in his lifetime. Like Martin, Finster converted his 2.5-acre swampy property into a collection of art-covered buildings and inscrutable sculptures, from small house made from discarded Coca-Cola bottles to a mound of snakes fashioned out of concrete. Everywhere he could, he hung his childlike paintings with biblical phrases and religious musings.
“It’s much more unruly [than Pasaquan],” said Katherine Jentleson, curator of the High Museum’s folk and self-taught collection, referring to the messy conglomeration of works strewn about Paradise Garden. That unruliness attracted a few notable rock bands to the property over the years, R.E.M. shot its “Radio Free Europe” video at Paradise Garden (Finster makes an appearance in the video), while Talking Heads used a Finster painting for the cover of its 1985 album “Little Creatures.” Despite Finster’s relative fame, the upkeep of Paradise Gardens languished after his death 16 years ago. Some of the stone sculptures had sunk into the mud and buildings were teetering, according to one of the caretakers. County officials eventually took over the site and set about making repairs. Today the Paradise Garden Foundation manages the property, fueled by donations, an annual art and music “Finsterfest,” and an Airbnb rental building next door. About a one-hour-and-45-minute drive northwest of Atlanta, paradisegardenfoundation.org
THE LOWDOWN // Where to Sleep and Snack Near Rural Georgia’s Outsider Art Sites
Staying there: Atlanta has many fine hotels, but to experience outsider art in the evening, too, rent the cottage next to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden Rental includes a key to visit the garden after hours (from about $130 a night, airbnb.com/rooms/5338048). For a more upscale option, try the Barnsley Resort, a luxury complex set amid the ruins of an old plantation (from $259 a night, barnsleyresort.com). To stay closer to Pasaquan, try Mountain Top Inn and Resort in Warm Springs, Ga., the town where President Franklin D. Roosevelt endeavored to recuperate from his paralytic illness (from $126 a night, mountaintopinnga.com). Roosevelt’s cottage, called “the Little White House,” is worth a peek while you’re in the area (gastateparks.org/LittleWhiteHouse).
Eating there: After visiting Paradise Garden, head to the Harvest Moon Cafe in the quaint city of Rome, between Summerville and Atlanta for a plate of excellent shrimp and grits (234 Broad St., Rome, Ga., myharvestmooncafe.com). En route to or from Pasaquan, stop in Columbus to gorge on what many consider the best fried chicken in Georgia at Minnie’s Uptown Restaurant (104 Eighth St., Columbus, Ga., minniesuptown.com).
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