By Jacquelyn DeLauder
With his hands aloft, twirling gentle circles in the air, Eddie Owens Martin (St. EOM) gestures to his listeners with sincerity. Videos on Youtube show a man of conviction that speaks with the timbre of a poet. Although his speech seems to meander at times, he manages to communicate with purpose and imbue his words with meaning. A lifetime of experience is hidden behind his flamboyant ritual dress and carefully crafted artworks. While some videos exist of his performances and speeches, there are few sources of knowledge about who St. EOM really was.
In October of 2016, St. EOM’s Pasaquan reopened for viewing to the general public. The Kohler Foundation and Columbus State University (CSU) joined forces to preserve his legacy. Pasaquan’s multimillion dollar restoration is now under the stewardship of CSU. Students and staff from the university worked with art preservationists from the Kohler Foundation to bring new life to a slowly deteriorating art environment. Now that an academic institution is sponsoring the revival of Pasaquan, will the life story of its creator be preserved as well?
People who knew St. EOM recall his style with an air of fondness. His clothing and occupations set him apart from the people that lived in the area. “He was always dressed in outlandish clothes and decorated hats; [he had] bells on his pants so he jingled when he walked,” said Fred Fussell, a friend of St. EOM’s. “Even though he lived in Manhattan for about 30 years, he never lost that deep southern drawl.”
Other residents of Marion County had similar recollections of Martin’s clothes. Multiple residents recount their encounters with him in the local grocery store, but few knew him more than in passing. “He was a loner,” said Carol Murray one of the original members of the Marion County Historical Society. “He didn’t just befriend people in the grocery store or things like that.”
Only a small portion of residents could describe who Martin was beyond his unique sense of style. Looking at his history provides context for his creation of Pasaquan and the mystique that surrounds his life.
“I have always been fascinated by eccentric, visionary art,” said Columbus State University Professor and Director of Pasaquan Michael McFalls. “What I think is more fascinating now is his story.”
Martin’s journey led him from the life of a small town farmer to that of a jaded street hustler. From the start he chose to align himself with the black community. He related to the struggle of the downtrodden and was welcomed with open arms instead of closed fists.
According to St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan: The Life and Times and Art of Eddie Owens Martin by Tom Patterson, Martin was born and raised in Georgia where he remained until he was a young teen. The first part of his youth was spent in Glen Alta a small town that couldn’t contain all of Martin’s dreams and aspirations. He was one of 7 children, 3 girls and four boys. His family lived and worked on a farm as sharecroppers, eking out a living from the land.
As a child St. EOM was subject to physical and emotional abuse from his father. “He could be very violent and sadistic,” said Martin in Tom Patterson’s book. “He would unnecessarily beat me—just snatch me off the mule when he would come in from working in the fields and beat the hell out of me.” His father treated him with disdain and even murdered the young Martin’s dog because it had wandered to the house of a black family.
The first part of his life, while a tragic picture of child abuse, still doesn’t capture the fanciful image that some admirers of Pasaquan’s artwork have of its creator today. The sculptures and paintings decorated in dynamic shades of oranges, reds, and blues belie the horrors of his mistreatment at the hands of a man he should have been able to trust. It’s hard to imagine that the brilliant colors that cover the landscape of Martin’s former home, hide a history of abuse.
After Martin left his small town in Georgia, he abandoned conventional school education as well as the only home he had known to discover new ways of living. He left his mark on the states he lived in, most notably on New York. He worked the streets there as a male prostitute to support himself.
When viewing his art, he has multiple depictions of male genitalia from sculptures to paintings. While there may be no explicit connection between his work as a gigolo, and his collection of male-themed art, there may be an implicit reference to his experience as a member of the world’s oldest profession.
Working the streets still carries a stigma that has not been erased with the passage of time. Considering that Pasaquan is in the Deep South, a place known for its strictly conservative values, it remains to be seen if his past will be accepted with his art.
St. EOM wasn’t only a card carrying member of the sex trade, he also dabbled in the intriguing art of fortune telling. Martin received visitors that would wait for hours just to have their fortunes told. He functioned as the “poor man’s psychiatrist” for those who could not afford to seek professional guidance. He gained his skills by reading fortunes in a New York tea room.
Working the usual 9 to 5 job and staying within society’s prescribed constraints never became the norm for Eddie Martin. If he wasn’t downtown selling his services, running a parlor for gamblers, or telling fortunes, he was creating what he is now known for, his art.
At the grand reopening of Pasaquan, nary a soul mentioned the shady gambling establishment Martin ran or his time as the drag queen known as the “Tattooed Contessa.” It was almost as if his history had been transformed into that of a PG southern family friendly tourist destination.
People that lived in the same town as him sold their wares, but they didn’t know St. EOM when he was alive. His aura of mystery persists. As the years pass and the memory of his exuberance fades, the only reminder of St. EOM’s presence will be the few grainy videos that remain on the internet.
Even if the public didn’t know him in the past, they can still learn about him in the future through his message and his art. In the words of St. EOM, “keep kindness in your heart and go on along.”