The "bodacious, mystic bad-ass" to appear in the Holy CityBY TOM PATTERSON
A lot of us who have lived for more than a few years in the American South like to gripe about how the region looks too much like every other part of the country these days. The entire territory, we complain, seems to have been overrun by six-lane strips of asphalt lined with endless rows of the same gas stations and shopping malls and generic fast-food emporiums and flashing portable marquee signs that one sees anywhere else in the so-called "Sunbelt."
But off the interstate highways and traffic-jammed franchise arteries, it is still in fact possible to find little pockets of what might be called The Real South the kinds of places and people that gave this region its reputation as somehow very different from the rest of the U.S.A.
The Real South is a land of extremes, of paradox and contrast. At the same time that this part of the country has traditionally been an arch-conservative hotbed of uptight, Bible-thumping WASP fundamentalists, it has also always been a breeding ground for eccentrics and innovators of all kinds the characters the straightlaced neighbors might regard with a little awe and suspicion.
The realm explored here, created by one Eddie Owens Martin (a.k.a. "Saint EOM" The "E" is silent, so it's pronounced like the ancient Eastern chant Om, or the unit of electrical resistance, ohm.), is called "Pasaquan," and it exists right now, off the main post-modern American highways on the far and isolated edge of the Wild and Eccentric Side of the Southern Paradox, in Marion County, Ga.
One day more than 50 years ago Martin heard a voice, from "the spirit world," and that voice told him, "You're gonna' be the start of somethin' new, and you're gonna be called a Pasaquoyan, and your name will be Saint EOM."
"I heard that voice a long time before I knew any Spanish," St. EOM explained, "but later I found out that past means pass' in Spanish. And I found out that a quan' is an Oriental word that means bringin' the past and the future together, so you can derive the benefits of the past by bringin' it into the future.' And so I call myself a Pasaquoyan, and this place is called Pasaquan, where the past and the present and the future and everything else come together."
Situated on a remote, pine-shrouded ridge a few miles outside the little town of Buena Vista, Ga., Pasaquan is not an easy place to find. There's no mistaking it for anyplace else, though. It is a wild and dazzling patch of living, local hyper-technicolor, and seeing it for the first time is a mind-stretching experience indeed.
Martin was born and raised in Marion County, less than 10 miles away, but even as a child he always felt somehow estranged, different from the other God-fearing citizens in this part of the Bible Belt. He was the archetypal kid who had his sights set on broader horizons. During his youth the neighbors didn't take any particular notice of him, since he was to all appearances just another barefoot boy in overalls.
But by the time of his death at age 77 he was well accustomed to being regarded as the county's oddest character "that crazy old fortune-teller Eddie Martin, who lives behind them weird-looking walls out toward Cusseta."
In the world outside Marion County, St. EOM received a bit of attention during the last decade of his life as a curiosity among environmental folk artists, but few of the people who take an interest in such things actually met him or saw his work firsthand. The folk enthusiasts are generally used to tamer, quainter folk artists than Martin, who came on strong. He had no use for "curriculum people," as he called the art and folklore academics.
Refusing to be patronized or intimidated, he talked like a campy, trash-mouthed, 1930s Harlem hipster, and he was known to scare off visitors whose attitudes he didn't like. As for the citizens of Marion County, they treated Martin with a certain degree of ambivalent respect, but they didn't often use the word "artist" to describe him.
His extensive wardrobe of ceremonial drag was made up of long flowing robes and capes in brilliant multiple colors, candy-striped turbans and feathered headdresses, boots and bracelets trimmed with bells and seashells, naugahyde vests adorned with target shapes and tufts of black horsehair, and other similarly flashy outfits. He usually wore long sleeves to cover the blue tattoos running up and down each arm.
Pasaquan, St. EOM's psychedelic Assisi in the Southern pines, is a subtly balanced, garishly harmonious architectural compound which seems to have been built for the elaborate rituals of some long-vanished cult. Its temples, pagodas, shrines, altars, walls and walkways are embellished with cement-sculpted totem faces larger than life, swirling mandalas and occult-looking symbology, giant undulating snakes and Polynesian-like male and female figures in a variety of poses.
All of this is painted in the brightest shades of Sherwin-Williams St. EOM could find in the local hardware store. Set on four acres and surrounded by miles of sparsely-populated, low-lying hill country, Pasaquan is carefully landscaped and strategically planted with thickets of tall bamboo and ribbon cane, which enhance the Oriental ambience while concealing the place from view of the pulpwood trucks, pickups and occasional cars that pass by on the blacktop country road.
St. EOM said that in building it he was influenced by the ruined temple complexes of Pre-Columbian Mexico and his notion of what the civilizations on the fabled lost continents of Mu and Atlantis might have looked like. In some of its aspects Pasaquan calls to mind African sculpture and the statuary on Easter Island. And with its bold designs and flamboyant colors it also has the immediate impact of a carnival sideshow.
Whatever the architect's intentions, the overall effect is that of a scaled-down Angkor Wat or Oz or Chichen Itza in some crazed 3-D cartoon, and it has left many a first-time visitor open-mouthed and speechless for long stretches of a morning or an afternoon.
So what's the story on this St. EOM character? Who was he, and why did he go to the trouble of building such things?
Martin was one of seven children born into a poor white trash sharecropper's family shortly after the turn of the century, and he wasn't the sort of boy who was about to be kept down on the farm. A runaway at the tender age of 14, he hit the streets of New York at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties.
Like many a starry-eyed country boy who has run away to the big city, he turned to his only immediately available asset for making a living in a place where farm skills meant nothing his body. He spent his first dozen years in New York as a midnight-cowboy-style street hustler.
Later he made ends meet by running an illicit gambling parlor, dealing marijuana, working as a waiter in a gay nightclub, and finally by establishing himself as a fortune-teller on 42nd Street. By the time he was 30 years old he had decided that his real calling in life was art, and he spent much of his time during his last 20 years in New York producing paintings and drawings which he was consistently unsuccessful in selling.
In many ways he was a man ahead of his time. Long before the eras of the beats, the rock-n-rollers, the hippies and the new-wavers, Martin had done it all hitchhiking and freight-hopping across America, wearing strange clothes and hairstyles, dodging the draft, freewheeling sexual experimentation, dabbling in Eastern religions and the occult.
When he finally returned to Georgia in the late 1950s, it wasn't to blend in discreetly with the rest of the local population, but rather to establish himself as a proudly hermetic recluse in self-imposed exile from the larger American society. He maintained that posture for 30 years, continuing to tell fortunes for a living while he built the Paradiso of his dreams.
He was a man who felt he had something to prove, and his way of proving it was to create one of the most distinctive environmental artworks in America, a site which is comparable in range and scope and weirdness only to a few others in this country Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden in Kansas and Howard Finster's Paradise Garden, also in Georgia.
Never one to feign humility, St. EOM bitched until his dying day that he didn't receive the recognition he was due as an artist. During St. EOM's last few years at Pasaquan his health began to decline along with his spirits. Then in April of 1986 he brought his extraordinary career to its startling conclusion with a single bullet from a .38-caliber pistol.
I first met St. EOM in 1980. The experience was, to put it mildly, astonishing, and I felt compelled to return to Pasaquan periodically, if only to reassure myself that I hadn't dreamed it all.
After I had paid him five or six visits, Martin slowly began to accept me as a friend, and he seemed pleased with the magazine piece I wrote about him in 1981, probably because it consisted mostly of direct quotes. He loved to hold forth, whether telling stories about his unconventional life or railing against the greed and stupidity of modern society, and I was always a willing audience, ready to listen to whatever he had to say or to sing. It wasn't uncommon for him to break suddenly into a guttural blues-chant in mid-conversation, putting into spontaneous rhyme anything that happened to be on his mind.
Now the Great High Pasaquoyan is gone, and the backwoods explorer in search of Wild Art and Architecture is confronted only with this strange place he built in the middle of the American No-where. I can only describe what an introductory visit to Pasaquan was like during the last years of its creator's life: St. EOM didn't often take kindly to sight-seers, and for many years he had as his constant companions two big German shepherds, just in case he needed any help in sending unwanted visitors on their way.
In the driveway just outside the totem-flanked gateway was a hand-lettered sign that read, "BEWARE OF BAD DOGS. BLOW HORN AND WAIT IN CAR UNTIL I COME OUT." After driving up and following these instructions, you were liable to have to wait a half-hour or more before St. EOM let out a blood-curdling "shaman yell" from inside the gates, then paraded out in full tribal regalia with his dogs.
While he sized you up to see what kind of "viberations" you gave off, the dogs snarled and bared their fangs. Their jaws looked strong enough to decapitate a medium-sized child with one chomp. When you asked if it was safe to get out of your car, St. EOM would say, "Them dogs won't mess with you, man. Not if you don't have no evil thoughts."
After pondering that response, you decided whether you really wanted to enter the Land of Pasaquan and the world of Eddie Owens Martin.
This is an excerpt from Tom Patterson's book, St. EOM in the Land of the Pasaquan (1987, The Jargon Society). Patterson will appear at the Halsey Gallery at the College of Charleston May 23 at 8 p.m. to show slides and read selections from his book. All artwork by St. EOM.
One day more than 50 years ago Eddie Martin heard a voice from "the spirit world," and that voice told him, "You're gonna be the start of somethin' new, and you're gonna be called a Pasaquoyan, and your name will be Saint EOM"