Story by Sonnet Moore
Images by Carrie Beth Wallace
If you’ve heard of Pasaquan, chances are you’ve heard of Charles Fowler. The caretaker of Pasaquan, Charles is eclectic, magnetic, and charismatic without even trying. The first time I went to Pasaquan I was going as a photographer who just wanted to take a few shots and leave. I arrived and was greeted by Charles. He asked my group if we wanted to hear the story of Pasaquan and we said sure. I remember sitting in the front room surrounded by Eddie Owens Martin’s work, and I felt something I’d never experienced before. I was completely engaged. With the artwork, of course, but more importantly, with Charles. The way he told the story of St. EOM, the passion he had behind work that wasn’t even his own, his ability to connect with me, a complete stranger, evoked a sense of excitement and curiosity. I went to Pasaquan to indulge in a photo shoot, and left finding a story I knew I needed to tell.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Charles, you spend every day at Pasaquan. What was your first reaction when you came here?
The very first time I came to Pasaquan it was in 2009. My dad is a musician and was in a band called the Bibb City Ramblers. He was the mandolin player and he was like, “Hey! I’m going to this cool place called Pasaquan -- you should come with,” and I said, “Sure!” So I went with him and I think I was in a different world mentally. I actually didn’t like it. So then I came back another year and this guy started telling me the story of Eddie Owens Martin and it just blew my mind. A futuristic tribe channeling from the future to tell this man to build a home where all races and all religions come together. Being a mixed race person -- half Filipino half Caucasian, and to hear of a utopia where all races live together -- especially growing up somewhat Catholic, it was amazing. It blew my mind and I just felt like an idiot for not realizing it before.
It is interesting how the perspective shifted with time and growth. So then, you hopped right on board, correct?
When I graduated from CSU in 2012 I spent two years trying to decide what I was doing. I curated some art shows, I performed music, I started writing and creating things and it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere. So, the former chair of the art department, Dr. Joe Sanders, recommended me to intern for the Kohler Foundation. I joined in on the restoration and it’s pretty much why I am here today.
Why did you decide on the Columbus State University Art Department?
I think I was more lost and I didn’t know what to do. College was something that, I felt, was shoved in my face, so honestly I just randomly decided on CSU.
I had some dreams of furthering my violin studies. I actually joined CSU thinking I might do music instead of art. I joined CSU as a data entry sort-of-thing, but around this time I was drawing a lot of manga and Japanese comic-book inspired art. Fine art was nowhere in sight for me at that point. I kind of realized I couldn't make a career out of that, so I tried to go for the computer science route. Bombed it. Terrible. That didn’t work out for me at all, so then I thought about music, but the moment I realized I had to actually audition I knew I was out. Finally, I decided on the next best thing. Art.
I joined the Art Department and was in 3D design with Michael McFalls--who actually is my boss now. My Drawing 1 professor had a bit of a mental breakdown and that’s when Hannah Israel stepped in. Having Hannah and Michael as mentors really opened up the world to me. It introduced me to the field of professional art, taught me how to think differently, how to engage intellectually with the arts, and inspired me to build a self-awareness of why and what I am creating. I decided I wasn’t going to make comic books - I was going to make fine art.
Vision #4. Charles Fowler, 2019.
It sounds like, just as it is for a lot of us, your mentors were the ones that ignited this fire to create more. Were those the people that pushed you more towards Pasaquan, or was it something else?
My first introduction was in 2009, but in 2014, it was Dr. Joe Sanders who brought me back. Around that time, Kohler and CSU were just beginning to work together. Hannah and Mike were not involved yet. Mike is now the director, but at that point it was all brand new.
Luckily, Dr. Sanders was part of the Pasaquan Preservation Society and he saw me out here, knew I was engaged in the space, and knew it was something I wanted to bring friends to so they could experience it. He knew I focused in sculpture, which is what everyone knew me for at CSU. So Dr. Sanders recommended me to The Kohler Foundation, which was the organization that spearheaded most of the preservation for Pasaquan. I was told it was a big deal so I said okay! I did two years under the internship program with The Kohler Foundation. CSU made an agreement with Kohler that they’d donate everything back to CSU when they are done with it. The rest of the artwork was going to be displayed at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, WI. They actually are going to be opening a new museum called the Art Preserve. I am just super stoked that Eddie Owens Martin will be part of that collection. I never thought I’d have my work in it too! I did a residency last November for them actually. Even if I am just some nobody artist, I still get to say, “Yes, I am part of the Kohler Collection.”
CSU agreed to take 100% after Kohler took what they wanted to preserve in their facilities. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in art conservation, but that’s not what I went to school for. I had this moment where I had to make a choice. I had three or four paths that opened up for me. At this point I thought to myself, “Okay I really could get out of Georgia.” and it’s funny, one of the preservers looked at me and said, “Are you an idiot? You have to apply for this job just in case nothing else works out.” So I applied, I got the job, and it’s been a whirlwind of incredible experiences ever since.
You’ve been here for three years as the caretaker and two years as an intern. In your 5 years that you’ve been immersed in this atmosphere, how has it inspired or influenced your artwork?
So, when I was in school I saw myself as a joker. I was funny and tried to make people laugh. A lot of my work was just me trying to be funny. I was really into Human interaction and moral choices at that time. If you know someone is being spied on do you tell them, or do you take advantage of that moment? I thought it was funny- it came from a joke and turned into this multi-layered piece. That was my white-cube, gallery, New York City serious artist moment.
But then I came out here. I was thrust into this folk art and visionary art world. And I mean, I grew up with other folk artists. Ralph Frank, a Columbus painter, was at my house all the time when I was a kid. I was hanging out with people like Ralph and I was exposed to this weird world. My work has shifted to where I am interested in spirituality in some ways. It can be difficult to talk about, because it is so new to me. I went through a period where I had no studio and art seemed hard to make, so I went back to basics. How do I learn to focus and rebuild something?
What I went back to was one of the first things I learned in art school--focusing on one thing, one texture. When I began, my body would go into autopilot, or auto drawing. The cool thing about this auto-pilot drawing that I was doing is that your subconscious takes over and then whatever you’re feeling is just coming out of your hands. That idea has been stuck in me through Pasaquan and the spiritual and visionary thinking.
To Be Loved. Charles Fowler, 2019.
I am sure that’s exciting, but do you ever feel frustrated with that?
I’m still developing it, so it definitely can feel frustrating. When people start mentioning other things that are in that realm it makes me feel like I kind of know nothing. That’s the feeling I hate having, but it makes me want more and it pushes me to dive deeper into it. So now I have this list of things that I have to study! In terms of Eddie, I am just living inside this guy’s legacy. He had seven acres of all kinds of art--architecture, sculpture, drawings, paintings, jewelry, fashion. He was doing all of this obsessively throughout his life for a good 50 years. He didn’t start building Pasaquan until he was in his late 40s. So, knowing that this guy did all of this in such a late period of his life, I feel like I have absolutely no excuse. He was a prostitute in New York turned fortune teller, and then built 7 acres of art and went on to be seen as this wonderful saint? I just can’t let anything stop me.
Do you see yourself still creating here in the near term, or do you have plans to go elsewhere?
I always tell myself I have a year left. I’ve been here for 5 years now. But the thing is, these cool projects just keep popping up, you know? Because of Pasaquan I get involved with other folks. My goal is to possibly go to grad school. What school? Still haven’t decided on that quite yet. I just want to make sure that I go to a school that I know will have new scenery. How soon? I have no idea. I just really want to further my education and further building my network. For me to further build, I think I have to leave. I know there is something exciting happening in Columbus, but I keep asking myself, where is the next art “boom” going to happen? It feels like Atlanta, from all of the curators and gallery folks that I’ve befriended through Pasaquan. That’s another thing that goes along with it, though. I am here at Pasaquan, I am meeting so many people, I’m getting involved in an art scene three hours away from me. I know that there are so many people that would kill for that.
I feel like there is this movement that’s just starting in the art scene here in Columbus, and I know you can see that too-- is that inspiring for you?
I do see a bright future for Columbus in terms of the arts. We’ve got so much going on with theatre and music--especially with what Muddy Water is doing. As far as the art scene, I think we’ve got some growing to do, but we are on our way forward. I don’t know if we need to put everybody under an umbrella. I like that there are multiple scenes in different places. It causes competition, but it causes people to branch out and try different things.
When I came to Columbus, I felt like it was the dark ages. There wasn’t too much happening and there were maybe like, three places to get a sandwich. I will say, however, that Fountain City Coffee was and still is just a fantastic spot for like-minded people to get together. I know a lot of people, though, who had to leave. I have a friend in New York working for a very prestigious gallery and we talk all the time and we tell each other, “I wish I was where you’re at!” back and forth. We talk about how Columbus was such a great spot to befriend people, to have these conversations, and then branch out. When you do branch out, your bubble is popped. You’re no longer the big fish and you have to build upon that. One thing I really love about Columbus is that you are next to Ft. Benning and you have the art college and you have conservatives and liberals and multi-racial couples. Because of Ft. Benning we have a constant flow of people coming from all around the world. The stereotype of the south being this intolerant and racist place is inaccurate when you look at Columbus. Because we are living together, we are exposing ourselves, and having that open-mindedness is great.
Charles, last question. What is your dream project?
I want to create something that tells a story. I am a musician too and grew up loving classical music. I just want to make a spiritual and emotional experience for people in a grand scale. I saw Kanye West’s Jesus Is King at the IMAX in Columbus and it was amazing. So I want to do something like that. Something that incorporates art and music into one big production. What is it about? I’m working through that. Is it just an abstract kind of emotion that you feel? Maybe. There was this one piece I saw in New York at MOMA and then again at the High Museum in Atlanta. It’s 32 speakers in a giant circle. You can either sit in the center or walk around each speaker. Each speaker was a voice of a choir singer and you can hear the differences in their voices. It is supposed to mimic the first moments of being alive and I just remember being moved to tears as I walked around. I sat in the center and had this sound take over. That is what I want to do to people. That’s the feeling I want to evoke. I want to create something that moves people. ◼︎
If You Go:
Where: 238 Eddie Martin Road, Buena Vista, Georgia
Hours: Friday-Sunday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. or by appointment.
Cost: Suggested donation of $5 per visitor.
More information may be found here.
*This story was originally adapted from an article originally published in The Current, Winter 2019.