What happens when a man veers off the road travelled by his fellow humans and walks alone into the wilderness? When, like Henry David Thoreau, he decides to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life?" This is the story of such a man. Born in 1908 the son of a Georgian sharecropper, Eddie Owens Martin eventually became St. EOM, the visionary artist who transformed his backcountry farmhouse into a trippy acid-colored temple he named "Pasaquan" and who died, alone, in 1986, receiving little affirmation or recognition for his flamboyant artistic genius.
I heard about Eddie Owens Martin sitting in my kitchen talking with Alexis, my new associate, about an upcoming trip to Georgia. "You have to go to Pasaquan!" she said. "It's like nothing you've ever seen."
Alexis had been to Pasaquan herself not long ago. She is the daughter of Terri Yoho, the former executive director of the Kohler Foundation which, in 2013, made the decision to conserve all seven acres of Pasaquan. (And let me interject right now with a public vow: henceforth, under my roof, I will only ever bathe in Kohler tubs and sit on Kohler toilets.)
Upon the advice of Alexis and Terri, we drove from Savannah two hours through clearcut forests to the small town of Buena Vista (pronounced Bewna Vista) and turned up a dirt road where Pasaquan appears like a technicolor Oz in the middle of Kansas. My mind got blown. Since our visit, I've done a lot of research and I can't stop!
Pasaquan is an exotic smash-up of pre-Columbian, African, Asian, and Native American symbolism embedded in 900 linear feet of concrete, conceived of and built by a man who embraced his homosexuality, who refused to fight in World War II, who refused to participate in a neighborhood lynching, who educated himself through the public libraries and museums of New York City, who survived incarceration, who grew his own marijuana, who paid for his art and construction supplies (and his open-heart surgery) out of the proceeds of fortune-telling, who participated in his town's garden tour, and who died by his own hand with a single gunshot from a .38 revolver.
If that isn't a quintessentially American story of individualism, freedom, and manifest destiny, then I'm a blue-blooded Daughter of the American Revolution.
I wrote a bunch of paragraphs about Eddie's life but it was too many words for this space. Still, it is important to know that Eddie ran away from home at the age of fourteen, ended up in New York City, and lived the life of a successful street hustler until his mid-twenties. Then, on a trip home to Georgia, he became gravely ill, and in a feverish fog, had a vision of three Buddha-like men from a utopian future world who anointed him a "Pasaquonian" and ordered him to change his ways.
It sounds like something out of "The Christmas Carol," where the ghosts of the past, present and future come a-calling. And just like Ebenezer Scrooge, Eddie caught a glimpse of what could be a better world. He came out of his fever utterly renewed. He changed his name to St. EOM (Eddie Owen Martin, pronounced 'ohm'), and altered his appearance, most notably growing out his hair and beard and weaving them together in an intricate kind of up-do he believed would strengthen him physically and spiritually.
For thirty years, Eddie, aka St. EOM, lived on the land he inherited from his mother, working ceaselessly to transform it into a brazen-colored landscape of undulating walls, pagodas, round houses, totems, and arenas. He continued to be guided by visions but he also relied on intuition and experimentation. He told biographer Tom Patterson, "I was experimentin', feelin', finding', learnin' somethin' I didn't know nothin' about."
As Eddie St. OEM grew older, his health declined and he suffered bouts of depression. In 1986, he sent his beloved assistant, Scotty, to town to pick up fish sandwiches and then shot himself in the head. Many residents of Buena Vista never knew what to make of Eddie while he was living, but they did show up at his funeral.
Eddie St. OEM left his property and hundreds of pieces of art to the Marion County Historical Society, which was run by Fred Fussell, a longtime admirer of Eddie St. OEM. Fussell, his wife Cathy, and other volunteers worked for years trying to safeguard Pasaquan. But as time and Mother Nature took their toll, the cost of maintaining the estate grew. In 2008, Fussell wrote to the Kohler Foundation, which was well known for its preservation of visionary environments. Kohler declined involvement. The Fussells attained other small grants and continued their best efforts at Pasaquan but in 2013, Fussell wrote to Kohler again. This time, he got a 'yes'.
The Kohler Foundation spent two years working to restore Pasaquan to its original state. Kohler brought in professional preservationists, archivists, and craftsmen from around the country. They also employed local talent from the region. Eddie St. OEM's richly saturated colors originally came out of Sherwin Williams paint cans he purchased in the local hardware store. During the preservation process, all of the paints were color-matched and specially mixed to maintain color fidelity.
Upon completion of the restoration, Kohler gifted the site to Columbia State University for stewardship. Pasaquan has also been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I can only imagine how all of this acknowledgment would have fed Eddie St. OEM's soul. Not that he required outside validation but the man made art non-stop for decades and at times, it must have felt like he was screaming into a void.
Pasaquan is now open to the public. In fact, when you go, there are five levels of membership: neophyte, individualist, co-conspirator, a technicolor dreamer, or for $1000 you can be a Pasaquoyan.
About Eddie St. EOM, Buena Vista native and member of the Pasaquan Preservation Society Cathy Fussell said, "He was weird but he was our weird, you know?"
Biographer Tom Patterson, who called Eddie St. EOM his "psychedelic Assisi in the Southern pines," wrote in the foreword of his book, "St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan":
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.
As for me, I've seen Mary Nohl's house in Fox Point, Wisconsin. I've walked through Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park in Worcester, Wisconsin. They are fascinating environments. But I'm named after an ancient religion whose god, Mithra, ruled the rise of the sun. On some bizarre level, Pasaquan felt like home. So I'm claiming Eddie St. OEM. He is mine.
To learn more about Pasaquan, click here and here. To read more about the wildly interesting life of Eddie Owen Martin, consider buying "St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan," a narration of his life as told to Tom Patterson. Be prepared though -- it's even more colorful than Pasaquan! I highly recommend it.