I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Flamboyant street characters have always been a dime a dozen in New York, so it’s not too surprising that Eddie Owens Martin (aka “Saint EOM”) didn’t attract an inordinate amount of attention during his long stint as one such character between the early 1920s and the late 1950s. It was only in his last months in the city that he earned a photograph of himself and a small mention in the year-old Village Voice as “one of the most colorful registrants” in a sidewalk art show at Washington Square: “Over at the handicrafts table a turbaned, bearded figure identified himself as Ed Martin, a resident of the St. James Hotel. ‘I exhibit under the name of St. EOM,’ he said. ’I’m showing jewelry this year, as a change from paintings, but I’m really a fortune teller.’” (“Open Air Art Show Wide Open,” Voice, May 1, 1957, page 1)
The son of a Georgia sharecropper, Eddie Martin ran away from home in 1922 at age 14 and made his way to the Big Apple, where he spent the next three-and-a-half decades. Upon arriving in New York at the dawn of the Roaring ’20s, like many a starry-eyed country boy who has run away to the big city throughout history, he turned to his only immediately available asset for making a living in a place where farm skills meant nothing—his body. As he put it a few years ago, “I went to New York with my eyes wide open. I had thrown myself on the mercy of this world, but I knew I had to make a buck to survive. And in a big city like New York, if you’re a nice-lookin’ boy or girl, you can survive.”
Eddie spent his first dozen years in New York as a hustler, a male prostitute, living in and working the Lower East Side, Times Square, Bryant Park, the Bowery, Union Square, the theatrical district, and the nightclubs of Harlem. Later he made ends meet by running an illicit gambling parlor, dealing pot, working as a waiter in a gay nightclub, and finally by establishing himself as an exotically-clad fortune teller at one of the tea rooms that flourished along 42nd Street during the 1940s and ’50s. By this time he had decided that his real calling in life was art. When he wasn’t telling fortunes he spent most of his spare time holed up in his room at the St. James Hotel on 52nd Street, turning out paintings, drawings, and handmade jewelry that he had very little luck selling. He left New York for good in 1957, only a few months after the Voice made note of his colorful presence at that year’s annual Washington Square Outdoor Art Show. He didn’t know it at the time, but the most amazing phase of his career was just beginning.
“St. EOM” returned to Georgia and moved into the small farmhouse that his recently-deceased mother had left him along with four surrounding acres, deep in the pine woods of rural Marion County, near the little town of Buena Vista. He continued working as a fortune teller in this very different locale and was surprisingly successful. With the proceeds he brought in from his “readings,” he began transforming the house and its grounds into one of the most remarkable folk art environments in America—a sort of mock pre-Columbian psychedelic wonderland of brightly painted totems, curved and angled walls and walkways, and wildly ornamented structures that he called “temples” and “pagodas.” He christened the compound “Pasaquan”—a name that will be explained later—and he continued to alter and add to it for almost 30 years. Pasaquan is a real homemade marvel, in the same league with the most famous architectural works by self-taught “outsider artists”—Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles, S. P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden in Kansas, Ferdinand Cheval’s Palace Ideal in rural France, and Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, also in Georgia.
As extraordinary as this ongoing project was, St. EOM continued to work in relative anonymity. Beginning in the late 1960s there was a surge of interest in such idiosyncratic constructions in the high art world, and a few intrepid enthusiasts managed to find their way to Pasaquan. The place has been briefly noted in a few magazines and Georgia newspapers, and it merited a page of photographs and a few lines in Fantastic Architecture, an art book published by Harry N. Abrams in the early 1970s. A few examples of St. EOM’s freestanding work—the paintings, sculptures, drawings, handicrafts, and ritual costumes which he continued to produce—found their way into exhibitions devoted to contemporary folk and outsider art. But that was as close to fame as St. EOM ever got. He had to continue working as a fortune teller in order to make ends meet and to support the maintenance and expansion of his compound.
In mid-April of last year at age 77, his health having declined along with his spirits, St. EOM put an end to his career when he shot himself in the head with a .38-caliber pistol.
Eccentric, idiosyncratic, obsessive, quixotic, megalomaniacal, outrageous—St. EOM was all these things. He was one of the Great American Characters, a unique variation on the archetypal mad recluse so often portrayed in Southern literature. But even if Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams had ingested big doses of the hallucinogenic psilocybe mushrooms which thrive in south Georgia’s cow pastures, and collaborated on a work of post-modern Gothic fiction, they still couldn’t have invented someone like him.
St. EOM was much more than a fortune teller and eccentric character. He was in his own way a great artist, a kind of autodidact country cousin of Paolo Soleri, Antonio Gaudi, and Buckminster Fuller.
How did a poor redneck kid from Nowheresville and with only a sixth-grade education come to develop the bizarre persona of “St. EOM” and build this wild creation? That was the question I set out to answer in 1983 when I began a series of exhaustive interviews with St. EOM in preparation for writing a book on his life and art.
The first 14 years of Eddie Martin’s life might as well have been lifted straight out of a Walker Evans photograph from Let us Now Praise Famous Men. But young Eddie didn’t dig the sharecropper’s life. He claimed to have developed his psychic skills in New York during the late 1920s and early ’30s. “You had to be psychic just to survive in that street-hustlin’ scene, man!” he told me. “You had to have eyes in the back of your head!”
Eddie dropped out of the hustling scene in 1935 when he was in his late twenties. “I was gettin’ older,” he explained, “and there was fewer and far less contacts. I was gettin’ passé—that’s an expression that the bitches and the elegant people used in them days.” It was around that time, while undergoing a mysterious, undiagnosed illness that accompanied a nervous breakdown, that Eddie began seeing visions. Describing his symptoms and his first vision, he said, “I couldn’t eat, and I was just coughin’ and heavin’ up all this phlegm and stuff, like I was cleansin’ myself of my past—gettin’ rid of all the evil and confusion that had welled up in me from years of not bein’ myself. And durin’ the worst night of all, when I thought I had died, my spirit seemed to leave my body, and I encountered this vision of a great big man sittin’ there like some kinda god, with arms big around as watermelons. And his hair was long and went straight up from the top of his head, and his beard was parted in the middled and goin’ straight up the sides of his face. And he said to me, ‘If you can go back into the world and follow my spirit, then you can go, but if you can’t follow my spirit, then this is the end of the road for you.’”
Eddie agreed to follow the advice of this weird apparition, and he returned to the day-to-day world and quickly regained his health. A few months later he had his second vision: “I was sittin’ at the window in this apartment where I lived at the time, on 53rd Street near Fifth Avenue, and I was drawin’ a picture of Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, from this picture of him in the New York Times Magazine. His looks appealed to me. I always did go for them dark, exotic types. And while I was drawin’ him I noticed I could see this other figure from the brain inside: it was the image of a man’s face with his hair long and swep’ up. And all of a sudden this voice spoke to me and told me, ‘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.’ I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I didn’t know any Spanish in them days, but I later found out that pasa means ‘pass’ in Spanish, and quoyan is some kinda Oriental word that means the coming of a great event in the future.
The newly annointed “Saint EOM” (pronounced Ohm) began assembling the patchwork of beliefs, practices, and architectural and tonsorial aesthetics that would comprise his one-man religion. “Pasaquoyanism,” as he called it, was developed over the course of the next 20 years from St. EOM’s intuitive absorption of such influences as native dance costumes he had seen in New York museums, educational and travel films on tribal cultures, and the fanciful theories of James Churchward, author of a series of books on the legendary lost Pacific continent of Mu that were popular in the 1930s. Churchward was the Erik von Daniken of his day, and St. EOM was particularly fascinated by the illustrations in his books, which depicted hieroglyphics from the Maya and the Hopi alongside Oriental and Egyptian art and statuary. He later incorporated many of these images and symbols into the walls and totems of Pasaquan.
A central preoccupation of St. EOM’s that he incorporated into his unwritten Pasaquoyan creed was what he called “the art of the hair and the beard.” Rubbing his hands up the sides of his jowls and opening his palms to the atmosphere above his head, he would say, “Your hair is your antenna to the spirit world, man, and you should never cut it. It’s your continuation of you in this universe and out into the cosmos. This is the image of the complete, natural man, with the hair and beard long and growin’ up. It’s the way they were worn in the ancient days on the lost continents of Mu and Atlantis, man. Those were very advanced civilizations. They knew all the rituals that were given to man at the beginning of time. But all these things have done been forgotten by this society because of greed and militarism.”
Although Eddie Martin had dubbed himself a saint as he embarked on this strange, new chapter in his life, he led a life which was anything but saintly in the traditional sense. He continued for a few years to turn the occasional trick, and he picked up commissions from time to time for procuring some of the younger flesh for his former clients. The most obvious change was in his appearance. In keeping with his newly developed theories, he stopped cutting his hair and his beard, and when they had gotten long enough he started pulling them up and tying them Sikh-style in a topknot crowned by a garish turban.
“After I turned my hair and beard out,” he recalled, “even my old contacts in the street—the prostitutes and the faggots—started to ignore me. When they’d see me comin’ they’d cross the street or run get in a taxi. They thought I had done flipped my wig or somethin’.”
No longer accepted among his old milieu, the lone Pasaquoyan began spending an increasing amount of time in his one-room apartment, drawing and painting with whatever materials he could find or afford to buy. He had been interested in drawing since childhood, and this dormant interest was stimulated by his new fascination with the occult and with ancient, non-Western art and religion.
“I really didn’t ever know what I wanted to be in life until I began to dabble in the arts and learned to depend on that inner voice and got curious about all these religions and began to believe in myself,” he said. “So I began to draw. I couldn’t afford canvases and paints, so I’d pick up cardboard boxes from the street and draw on ’em. Sometimes I’d make frames outta old scraps of wood that I carved on.”
To make a living during this transitional phase in his life, St. EOM gambled regularly, mainly playing poker, for which he had a talent, and won often enough to come out better than even. He began running a down-home gambling den for hipsters in his apartment, selling beer, homemade chili, Georgia-style fried chicken, and hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes to the poker players at a profit.
The Pasaquoyan Pot-and-Poker Pad was permanently shut down in 1942, when a couple of narcs busted St. EOM for dealing. He was sentenced to a year in the old Federal Narcotics Prison Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, where he spent his time contentedly gardening, having sex with the other male inmates, and smoking the marijuana that was readily available there. Released in 1943 and under pressure to find employment while on probation, St. EOM returned to New York and got a job as a waiter at the Howdy Club, a fixture on the gay nightlife scene in the Village at the time. Palm readers and fortune tellers were part of the entertainment at the Howdy Club, and it was through a friend who told fortunes there that he gained an entry into the line of work that he would follow for the rest of his life.
The Wishing Cup Tea Room on 42nd Street was one of many establishments in that part of the city where the then-popular practice of tea leaf reading—divining the future by interpreting patterns formed in the wet leaves of an overturned teacup—was performed for a fee. Upon learning from his friend at the Howdy Club that there was an opening for a reader at the Wishing Cup, St. EOM bluffed his way into the job. Relying on his country-boy moxie and the sixth sense he claimed to have developed in his hustling days, St. EOM practiced his own intuitive method of tea-leaf reading and soon established himself as one of 42nd Street’s most popular readers. With his long hair, bushy beard, and homemade Shangri-La clothing, he certainly looked the part of the psychic swami.
St. EOM lived his last dozen years in New York in relative seclusion. When he wasn’t giving readings at the Wishing Cup he was usually in his room obsessively making art. “I was paintin’ like mad in those days,” he recalled. “I’d go to work in the tea room from 3:00 to 10:00, then I’d get back home and light up a joint or two and go to work on the paintin’ I had on the wall. I was paintin’ scenes of ancient Mayan temples and some of the other ancient civilizations, and some pictures of the heads with the upswept hair. All kinda things—beautiful paintin’s. I tried to get some of my art in the galleries in New York, but I just couldn’t ever get through. It was just … Well, it just wasn’t like the average art. It was too bizarre for ’em.” After giving up on New York and moving back South in 1957, in the great unconscious tradition of outsider/visionary architects, St. EOM suddenly got the notion he wanted to build something, he wasn’t sure exactly what. Pasaquan evolved in his Georgia yard in the same patchwork fashion that Pasaquoyanism had started evolving in his head more than 20 years earlier. Using rocks and old bricks which he scavenged in the countryside, St. EOM started erecting walls around the place and overlaying them with cement, decorating them with ancient religious symbols drawn from the Churchward books and images from his own fertile imagination.
“I never had any overall plan,” he said in discussing his architecture. “Everything was from day to day. All I knew was that I could see these designs in my mind, and these very beautiful, weird symbols. And I knew they represented the universe and its forces and the great powers that hold all of this planet here together. I hadn’t ever built nothin’ before, so I didn’t know nothin’ about line levels and all that shit. I had to learn all that as I went along. I was experimentin’, feelin’, findin’, learnin’ somethin’ I didn’t know nothin’ about. It was all trial and error. But at the time it always seemed there was a good spirit right by my side who’d guide me and show me what to do. I hired a few young dudes from down in the country here to help me get the walls up and put the cement on. I had to lay it out and line it up and show ’em how to do it, and they’d work on it while I was inside at the table readin’ for my customers. And then I’d come out and put on these faces and symbols and designs while the cement was still wet. I just said, ‘The spirit’s gon’ guide me here,’ and I just followed the spirit. I didn’t use no special instruments. I lined up all these walls with the eye. And after I got ’em up, then I felt I had the world shut out.”
After he started building the lavishly ornamented walls, St. EOM enlarged his house to twice its original size by adding a long rear section covered inside and out with rainbow-colored murals, mandalas and relief sculptures and crowned with a tiered roof. On the grounds he built a series of structures including a circular “dance platform,” a couple of smaller “temples,” several totems, and a two-story “pagoda.” Everything but the multicolored roofing tiles and aluminum scalloping was covered with the brightest shades of paint St. EOM could find in the local hardware store in Buena Vista. Strategically planted thickets of cane and bamboo shielded the compound from the adjacent blacktop road. There was never any kind of sign to identify Pasaquan as a fortune-teller’s place of business, and its location remains almost as remote today as when St. EOM moved there 30 years ago. But somehow his customers always managed to find it, and they were somewhat grudgingly welcome so long as they could pay the fee for his psychic readings. Other visitors—errant tourists, journalists, curiosity-seekers, and pilgrims from the high art world—were just as likely to be shooed off or treated with suspicion as they were to be welcomed. It all depended on St. EOM’s erratic moods. If he had had his way, he would probably have spent his last years in complete seclusion, never seeing anyone for any reason.
The folk art enthusiasts who managed to find their way to Pasaquan quickly discovered that St. EOM was anything but the kind of quaint, folksy, humble, naive artisan with whom they were accustomed to dealing. He had no use for what he called “curriculum people,” and he boasted that he was “too bold and brazen for them people that run the art world.”
Bold and brazen and uncompromising till the end, St. EOM retained his isolated stance and continued to meet his expenses by reading fortunes. His “day job” was increasingly a drag to him, and he often complained in his last years about having to absorb the “bad viberations” of his largely down-on-their-luck clientele, to the detriment of his art. His progress on the construction of Pasaquan slowed to a crawl in the last five years, but he continued to produce powerful paintings and drawings based on his romantic notions of the ancient past and the distant future.
As for the present, he just didn’t have much taste for it. The modern world to him was shallow, pretentious, boring, and hopelessly conformist. And to make matters worse, he was old and increasingly plagued with the kind of ailments that affect many people his age—heart, kidney, and prostate problems. At one time he had believed his Pasaquoyan ritual practices might keep him eternally young, but he had obviously been wrong on that count. Despondent over the decline of his health and the fact that after almost 50 years as an artist he still couldn’t make a living at it, he was given to extended bouts of depression.
“I don’t get much charm outta life anymore,” he admitted shortly before he died. “I see too many things that need to be changed, and there’s no way of changin’ ’em. I’d like to see this country take a new direction, man, and turn back to the Truth, and to nature and the earth. ’Cause this fuckin’ phony shit that we got today, man, if it ain’t about to crush me! I know somethin’s got to give one day. But you can’t be a natural person in this society, man, ’cause they’ll ostracize the shit out of you every way they can. Believe me, ’cause I know. I’ve done been through it all. To tell you the truth, it’s got to the point where every night when I lay down to go to sleep I hope and pray to God in heaven that I’ll die. I just wanna pass out and be gone, make the change. I don’t wanna linger and suffer.”
In the end St. EOM just got tired of waiting for nature to take its course and “make the change” for him. On April 16, 1986 he sent Scotty Steward, the young black man who had worked for him for several years, to a local restaurant to bring back some fried fish for lunch. But when Steward returned to Pasaquan shortly after noon, he found St. EOM lying on his bed with a pistol in his hand and a bullet-hole in his right temple. On the table in the kitchen was a one-sentence note that read, “No one is to blame but me and my past,” signed with both his given and adopted names. Draped over a nearby chair was the boldly patterned chieftain’s robe from Cameroon which he had recently acquired, and in which he had said he wanted to be buried.
About 100 people showed up for the graveside funeral the following day in the cemetery next to a Primitive Baptist church in Buena Vista. A young preacher who was barely acquainted with St. EOM pronounced the last rites, and he obviously felt out of his league eulogizing such a bodacious badass non-Christian. The High Priest of Pasaquoyanism was buried next to his mother’s grave in a coffin that he had bought 14 years earlier, under a marble slab that bore the stark inscription: “ST. EOM/PASAQUAN/JULY 4,1908.” The absence of a date of death was perhaps a tacit testament to St. EOM’s oft-stated belief that he would be perpetually reincarnated.
In his will St. EOM left the Pasaquan compound and all of his possessions, including thousands of paintings and other artworks, to the Columbus Museum in nearby Columbus, Georgia—a small, regional institution whose chief curator, Fred Fussell, had been a longtime admirer of the artist and his work. At this writing the ultimate fate of the massive body of work that St. EOM left behind him hasn’t been determined. Almost always the pessimist during his last years, St. EOM had predicted gloomily that after his death his work would be neglected, destroyed, or sold for profit. But Fussell seems strongly committed to doing what he can to see that the arrangements are made for the long-term preservation of Pasaquan. He talks of the possibility of setting up a new, non-profit organization to which the Columbus Museum would convey the site and with it the responsibility for raising funds for its maintenance. In the meantime, the as-told-to biography on which I collaborated with St. EOM, titled St. EOM in The Land of Pasaquan, is scheduled to be published by the Jargon Society press later this year. In addition to the text the book will include dozens of color photographs of St. EOM’s art and architecture by Jonathan Williams, Guy Mendes, and Roger Manley. The book should help draw attention to Pasaquan’s importance as a unique American landmark, but much of St. EOM’s story as told therein—particularly the raunchy tales of his sexual escapades during his street-hustling days—is virtually guaranteed to alienate and offend any non-free-thinking types who happen to pick it up. That, of course, is just how the Pasaquoyan would have wanted it.
St. EOM was the quintessential American outsider artist—a mad, creative genius who insisted on remaining far outside the mainstream of society. He devoted the last half of his life to recreating himself in his own bizarre image of “the complete, natural man,” and for some this may seem evidence enough of his madness. But it is the evidence of his genius that screams loud and clear in eye-popping, living, local color at Pasaquan. Whatever one chooses to make of his oddly checkered career and his far-fetched ideas about ancient art and culture, it’s hard not to be awestruck in the presence of this marvel built into the landscape in the middle of the American Nowhere.
Pasaquan was the culmination of Eddie Owens Martin’s self-reinvention. It was and is his reinvention of the world—his little four-acre corner of it, anyway—and it is a genuinely remarkable achievement. For its creator it served as a sanctuary from an irredeemably corrupt and violent world. The occasional sounds of the big guns going off at Fort Benning, the huge US military installation only a few miles away, are more than enough of a reminder of what St. EOM tried to isolate himself from.
Gesturing proudly at his immediate surroundings, St. EOM would say, “This is the Land of Pasaquan, where the past and the present and the future and everything else comes together. I built this place to have somethin’ to identify with, ’cause there’s nothin’ I can see in this society that I identify with or desire to emulate. Here I can be in my own world, with my temples and designs and the spirit of God. Pasaquoyanism is the next big religion that’s gon’ come on the scene, man. It’ll outlast Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam and all that shit, man. I was sent here to bring new styles into the world, new ways of carin’ for the body, and the arts of the hair and the beard, as it was once upon a time in the days of the ancients, the Assyrians, the Mayans, the Olmecs, the Egyptians, the people of Atlantis and Mu. I can’t prove anything to this world, but it’ll all come to the fore one of these days. Just you wait. When I’m dead and gone, they’ll follow like night follows day.”
The Jargon Society and the Columbus (Georgia) Museum have organized an exhibition of St. EOM’s work, which will tour nationally from late 1987 through the end of 1989 through the Southern Arts Federation in Atlanta. © 1987 by Tom Patterson.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee