As memoir titles go, The Tom Patterson Years: Cultural Adventures of a Fledgling Scribe sounds more than a little self-important.
You will forgive the author, though, when you learn the source. It was a coinage of the gleefully absurdist rocker Col. Bruce Hampton, one of many characters — in every sense of that word – populating this engaging account of a life lived in constant creative ferment. Patterson seemingly had a hand in every outlet for experimental self-expression all over the South. In this book, he hews closely to his seven years in Georgia’s capital, when he embarked on projects that eventually made him a go-to authority on visionary art, particularly that of Howard Finster and St. EOM.
“Atlanta’s hippie scene went into decline by the beginning of the 1970s and had evaporated by 1977, when I arrived in the city in my rattletrap Karmann Ghia — a greenhorn writer looking to make something happen,” he writes. “But new manifestations of a local counterculture still thrived in several corners of the city.”
The book functions as a groovy time capsule, when the zeitgeist crackled with Jimmy Carter, Sharky’s Machine and alternative rock, such as the B-52s. If the flower children were pre-Raphaelites, think of their successors as Bloomsbury. Atlanta was smaller then, and Patterson found a rundown bungalow in Virginia-Highland, which at the time was a scruffy haven of dreamers still paying their dues. Joining this avant-garde sounds about as easy as pulling up a stool at the Stein Club.
Patterson grew up in Dublin, Georgia, far from any museums or serious art instruction, but wound up working as an assistant to renowned gallerist Judith Alexander. He founded Pinyon Press, a vehicle for his friends’ poetry and some of Hampton’s wild lyrics. And he landed a plum job writing for Brown’s Guide to Georgia. For his first piece of journalism, Patterson, in gonzo spirit, went on a hike while he was altered on LSD, which rendered the verdure especially vivid.
Everyone seems to have known and supported each other, in this close-knit, incestuous scene, fragrant with cannabis.
“What’s most interesting about my life are the people I’ve known,” Patterson says. So every chapter brims with name-dropping of the best kind, each a scrimshaw-like sketch.
For example: “Jeff was a charmingly loquacious, widely read bon vivant with the syrupy accent of the old Georgia aristocracy. . . . Back in his younger days, when he claimed to have looked like Troy Donahue, he’d worked with a partner to run a thriving escort service for older women, out of their apartment in the Georgian Terrace Hotel. They called their business ‘Gray Hustle.’”
Some of these monikers are recognizable to contemporary culture-vultures, such as playwright Phillip DePoy, literary television host James Taylor and an androgynous RuPaul. Other key players include artist Bob Tauber, folklorist Fred Fussell and poet Jonathan Williams, who founded the Jargon Society, which eventually merged with the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville.
Patterson clearly has a sort of internal divining rod that dependably leads him toward worthwhile weirdos, so it looks inevitable now that he would meet Eddie Owens Martin, better known as St. EOM (pronounced “om”). Martin made an indelible first impression at Pasaquan, his Buena Vista compound with pagodas, mandala-patterned walls, life-size sculptures and “sentinel totems staring back at us with hypnotic, cartoon eyes.”
The artist himself was “regally attired in a long, orange-and-blue striped gown topped with wooden-beaded necklaces, and a thickly feathered American Indian war bonnet, and his long, gray beard was braided along the sides of his face.” Martin quickly made it known that he wanted “pot,” which would become a sacrament of sorts for any future rendezvous.
Next came Howard Finster, the ecstatic, sometimes apocalyptic, evangelist behind another eye-popping installation, Paradise Gardens.
Patterson started writing about both of them journalistically, and then expanded his notes into books, or as-told-to biographies. “Each one consists of edited interviews with the artists and employs the artists’ own voices,” he says.
The art world did not quite know what to make of these two idiosyncratic, otherworldly messengers — and in some ways still doesn’t. They did not matriculate at art school, nor were they traditional “folk artists” in the sense of intergenerational, apprentice-based work. Patterson has settled on the term “vernacular.”
In keeping with the theme of collegiality, Martin and Finster knew each other.
“Anyone marginally familiar with Saint Eddie Owens Martin and his fellow artist the Reverend Howard Finster might have assumed the two would have little in common, other than their propensity for turning their yards into stunning art displays,” Patterson writes. “EOM was a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, gay pagan who had no use for the Christianity that Finster fervently espoused in his art and sermonizing. In fact, the two increasingly famous vernacular artists were friends. . . . Eddie had apparently held nothing back from Finster either. He found Finster attractive and was characteristically forthright about it. . . . ‘I told Reverend Finster, I said, ‘Reverend Finster, I’d like to get in your pants! Man, he got all flustered and told me, ‘Brother Martin, I’m not like you are. I like girls!’”
Now both compounds are sites of pilgrimage, and the work fetches high prices at auction.
“That was a period of culture that is past now,” Patterson says of his memories. “I hope I’ve provided a window to Atlanta’s history. The city has changed. Georgia is different now. The South is different. But anyone with an attentive eye can see something special, can spot objects of wonder.”