One late night when he was about 12 years old, Eddie Owens Martin got up from his bed and snuck outside with an elegant, tasseled scarf. The scarf, which had once sat on top of the family piano, was one of the few items of luxury and color in the isolated, crumbling South Georgia sharecropper’s shack where he lived with his mother, father and seven siblings. Martin’s father, a notorious drunk, womanizer and gambler, couldn’t make the payments on the piano itself, so it had been repossessed, leaving nothing behind but the pretty piece of fabric that had once draped over the top.
Outside, alone in the darkness, Martin gracefully wrapped the piano scarf around his head. He knelt down in a plum bush thicket, and facing the full moon, he whispered a prayer, a wish that would come to define nearly every aspect of his adult life. He asked God to make him different from anyone else in the world.
Pasaquan — the elaborate visionary art environment that the adult Martin eventually created near Buena Vista, Georgia — stands as evidence of the efforts he made to answer his own prayer.
But it is not the site alone, recently restored in all its vividly, eye-poppingly psychedelic glory and reopened to the public, that testifies to a dream fulfilled. Nor do the hundreds upon hundreds of bizarre paintings, sculptures, drawings, jewelry objects, costumes, songs, dances, headdresses and more that Martin created in his lifetime tell the full story of how a childhood wish became reality. Even today, 30 years after his death, Martin remains, just as he always wanted: an elusive figure, totally different from everyone else.
The most complete account of Martin’s life is his own long oral history transcribed by visiting journalist Tom Patterson in 1983 and published in his excellent 1987 book St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan. In the book, Martin, who went by the name St. EOM (pronounced ‘om,’ as in the Buddhist chant, and derived from the initials of his given name), tells many stories, including the revealing anecdote about his midnight childhood prayer. His life, as recounted at length in the book, is so unusual that it’s best to begin any consideration of Pasaquan with a thorough look at his story.
Martin was born at home at midnight on July 4, 1908, in Glen Alta, Georgia, a town so small, isolated and insignificant that it no longer exists: the former tiny train stop and its huddle of shacks in the South Georgia backwoods is now well off the nearest paved highway on a tract of private land. Everyone in Glen Alta farmed, he tells Patterson, and anyone from three or four hills away was a stranger. Martin doesn’t explain precisely why he always felt so different from the people around him, but it’s clear that he did. He describes how he was instantly suspicious of anything an adult told him. Instead of solving math problems on his slate at school, he drew. He also felt more of an affinity with the Black people in the community than he did the whites. He often snuck away to dance or listen to the music and stories at a little country store in Glen Alta where Blacks, many of them former slaves, congregated. It was a pastime that didn’t go over well with Martin’s virulently racist father, who once shot Martin’s beloved dog because it had wandered away and been found near the shack of a Black family. Martin was beaten so relentlessly by his father that he once asked his mother if he was really his father’s son. His mother responded by smacking him hard on the head with the ear of corn she was shucking, a response that suggests both the brutality of life in Glen Alta and also the hint of a possibility that he might have been right.
Even from a young age, Martin, an adventurous soul and an early bloomer, completely disregarded the sexual categories and prohibitions that constrained the lives of others in the religiously fundamentalist community he lived in. At 14, in 1922, as soon as his mother bought him his first pair of long pants, he left. He went first to Columbus, Georgia, the nearest “big city,” and by sleeping with various men for cash, transportation or a place to stay, he quickly made his way to Atlanta, then to D.C., then to Trenton, New Jersey, and Hoboken, before finally reaching his goal, New York City.
He soon became part of the underworld of 1920s New York, a Bohemian community of misfits, drag queens, junkies, crooks, artists, dancers and gay male prostitutes, an occupation he took up himself. Gay life in New York at that time, as memorably documented in George Chauncey’s seminal 1995 book Gay New York, was made up of colorful street characters like Martin and his crowd who flaunted their style in public, but also inevitably intersected with other gay people who, by day, led more conventional or closeted lives: businessmen, senators, blue collar workers, millionaires, gangsters — people from all walks of life and every strata of society. Martin had left home to see the world and to meet all kinds of people, and this he certainly did, also visiting institutions like the New York Public Library and The Metropolitan Museum of Art by day to research a topic that began to fascinate him: ancient cultures and their art. Just as he did throughout his life, Martin also created things in New York. Some of his oil paintings even appeared in a group show at New York’s Leon Tomler Gallery (none of his work sold).
Throughout his nearly three decades in New York, Martin made annual trips back home to Glen Alta to help his parents with the crops on the farm at harvest time. After his father died, his mother used a stash of money she’d hidden away to make a down payment on a farmhouse near Buena Vista, not far from Glen Alta. On one of his visits to help his mother there, Martin became deathly ill and he had a vision. “I encountered this great big character sittin’ there like some kind of god,” he told Patterson. “He was bigger than a giant. He wasn’t on a throne, but he was sittin’ down. His hair was straight up. And when I saw him I knew I had reached the end of my spiritual journey. And this great big man 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.’” Martin returned to New York rejuvenated, and though he’d always been an unusual person, all bets were off now as he became a visionary.
He developed a deep interest in psychic phenomena, astrology, ancient religions, supernatural occurrences and the occult. Always an intuitive and insightful person, Martin had huge success at the odd job of reading tea leaves in a back booth at a New York tearoom called the Wishing Cup: it led him to conclude–along with the willingness of his clientele to return time and again to part with their money–that he might indeed be psychic. Long hair and beards on men are so common nowadays as to be all but invisible, but when Martin began to grow his as an ‘antenna to the spirit world,’ the style was still so unusual that even his community of fellow New York misfits started to cross the street to avoid him when they saw him coming. One afternoon, as he was sketching the face of Haile Selassie from a photograph in the New York Times magazine onto a paper bag, he had another vision of a bearded man with long hair who told him that he should call himself Saint EOM and that he would become “a Pasaquoyan, the first one in the world.” He began to stick out as strange, even in New York. “New York wasn’t interested in new ideas, especially if they were that radical,” he said.
When Martin’s mother died in 1950, his brothers and sisters inherited the bulk of her property, but in 1957, Martin inherited the farmhouse itself and the few acres of land around it. He left New York for good to live there and began transforming it into Pasaquan, a site for a new utopian society based on his ideas and visions. Pasaquoyanism — a term which he said meant a meeting of past, present and future — would become a world religion. It was a wildly Byzantine, labyrinthine belief system based on Martin’s personal visions but also incorporating many of the gods, myths, symbols, rituals and supernatural and religious beliefs of mankind from ancient times to the present.
To earn his daily bread, Martin gave psychic readings, and though he never advertised his services in any way, word of mouth spread quickly. He would often wake up in the morning to a long line of cars parked outside his colorful, tucked away utopia. He performed these consultations in elaborate headdresses, beaded jewelry and colorful robes. His clients would drive for hours and then wait for hours just to speak with him. One of the rumors about Martin (unreported in the book but occasionally heard around Buena Vista) is that he also grew and sold marijuana at Pasaquan, and though rumors should always be taken with a grain of salt, this one has the whiff of truth. Martin recounts to Patterson how he saw all sorts of drug use in New York, and though he observed the way harder drugs destroyed lives, those who loved to use marijuana, including himself, always seemed to stay in fine health.
With the help of local laborers who were sometimes so unskilled they were winging it just as much as he was, Martin worked on Pasaquan tirelessly. Parts of it fell apart in his lifetime, but he and the workers he hired eventually became better builders. Creating Pasaquan’s temples, pagodas, totems, gateways, sanctums, colorful walkways and even a psychedelic shed for the propane tank would occupy the rest of his life. Portions of it remain unfinished.
“I built this place to have somethin’ to identify with, ‘cause there’s nothin’ I see in this society that I identify with or desire to emulate,” he told Patterson. After he received harassing visits from locals, including soldiers from nearby Fort Benning, he bought two German shepherds to help protect himself and the property. Visitors were informed first and foremost that if they gave off bad vibrations the dogs would attack. The fame of Pasaquan spread, and in the early 1980s, Martin even received a visit from the recently defeated ex-president Jimmy Carter and his family. “I told him that Reagan’s got just what this country wants: a good head o’ hair and a mean line o’ talk,” he said.
By the age of 76, in the mid 1980s, at the time Patterson interviewed him, Martin admitted he’d grown tired of giving readings, he longed for an even more solitary way of life and he hated the way that visitors took time away from what he saw as his real purpose, working on Pasaquan itself. His health declined, and in 1986, facing a loss of independence with more and longer visits to the hospital (a sterile, institutional environment he loathed) he shot himself at home in his bed. His gravesite in Buena Vista shows his birthdate but not the year of his death, expressing his belief that his spirit would live on at Pasaquan.
Soon after his death, several townspeople in Buena Vista created the Pasaquan Preservation Society to care for the site, but over the years, preserving the sprawling and elaborate place from the elements proved to be too difficult and too expensive for the small group of local supporters. The PPS reached out to the Kohler Foundation, a major charitable arts institution that specializes in preserving art environments and folk architecture, and in 2014, the foundation set out on a two-year project to restore Pasaquan, which was then gifted to Columbus State University and reopened in October 2016.
A visit to the site, which I consider an absolute must for every Georgian, is a chance to immerse oneself in contemplation of a singular, Southern life. Even today, Pasaquan feels a world away, in a part of the state so isolated and untraveled that many of the quiet county roads nearby are — in an age of constant billboards, advertising, placards, political signs and the like — notably devoid of signage of any kind for miles and miles at a time. It is two hours from Atlanta, but feels akin to arriving in the Mongolian steppe.
Though the parallels to ancient and religious art are abundantly clear at Pasaquan, elements of the theatrical and operatic are also striking (in New York, Martin was fascinated by all of the arts, but especially drawn to dance, opera, ballet and theater). The whole environment is like a colorful stage set, hidden from the nearby road by a thick, curtain-like stand of pine and bamboo. There are costumes, headdresses and also the beautiful, central sanded dance circle surrounded by its colorful walls that undulate with painted serpents.
As with an empty theater, there’s an aspect of the site Pasaquan that seems forlorn and abandoned, even spooky and sorrowful, in spite of its lively, vivid colors. It’s as though Pasaquan were a dazzling, decorative stage set from which the real work of art, the performer, Martin himself, had departed, and the gods and muses that were his audience had realized the show was over and left one by one, as well.
Martin is often categorized with other Southern folk artists who built colorful visionary environments like Howard Finster with his Paradise Garden, but to me, Martin shares as much, if not more, in common with radical queer artists like Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Anger, Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Genet. Martin’s style also seemingly overlapped with many of the spiritual and cultural movements of the 1960s and ’70s — hippies and especially the Radical Faeries come to mind — but his timing was off. Martin himself was nearly in his 60s and deeply ensconced in Pasaquan by the time the late ’60s and ’70s rolled around. And even so, one wonders if he would have been truly interested in becoming part of a movement or group of any kind. My guess is that if he ever met someone like himself, he would have immediately sought to emphasize the things that would delineate a difference. One of the central tenets of his invented belief system was that everyone on earth would eventually become more like him, a Pasaquoyan.
From an early age, Martin was conscious of his difference from other people and longed, not to minimize or hide that difference in order to fit in, but to highlight it in every way possible so as to further set himself apart from the rest of humanity. For me, the deepest mystery in a deeply mysterious place is why Martin felt so little interest in the needs that consume the rest of us throughout our lives: the need to belong, the need to find others like ourselves, the need to be understood, the need for proof, however small, that our efforts to leave a mark on the wider world are having something like the intended effect. Even our need to rebel, to set ourselves apart, is in some ways connected to the notion that our non-conformity will be perceived, perhaps even understood, by others. He enacted his refusal to conform on an empty farm in one of the most isolated places in the world.
Whatever the reason, that desperate, midnight prayer long ago seems to have been unnecessary. With or without the help of celestial intervention, Eddie Owens Martin was destined to be different from everyone else because of his determination to make it so.
One of the many curious beliefs of Pasaquoyanism was that the colorful suits Martin made would eventually allow wearers to control pressure points on the human body, to defy gravity and fly. Asked if this had ever worked for him, Martin answered, “No, but I’ve felt a whole lot lighter.” Lighter and lighter, the blessed St. EOM floats on, far above our heads.
Pasaquan is located at 238 Eddie Martin Road in Buena Vista, Georgia, 140 miles south of Atlanta and 30 miles east of Columbus. The site is open to visitors with a $10 suggested donation on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A few independent objects such as paintings and costumes are on display at Pasaquan but a better sense of the wide range of Martin’s fascinating and enormous artistic output outside of the environment itself can currently be gathered at a large temporary exhibition of works titled “In the Land of Pasaquan” at the LaGrange Art Museum through November 30.