ID #4767

The Owl House, Nieu Bethesda, Karoo, Eastern Cape.

Helen Martins lay ill in bed one night, with the moon shining in through the window, and considered how dull and grey her life had become. (Sound familiar thus far? Read on…) She resolved to strive to bring life and colour into her life.  The decision to embellish her environment was to grow into an obsession to express her feelings, dreams and desires.

It is not known in what order the work was accomplished, other than that the interior was almost complete before the exterior work began.  There was no overall plan, but what began as a decorative quest for light and colour developed into a fascination with the interplay of reflection and space, of light and dark, and of different hues.  From the mundane articles that surrounded her, she extracted and manipulated an emblematic language of sun faces, owls and other images. Only when the interior of the house was virtually complete did she apply her imagination to the world outside.  Biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and the works of William Blake particularly inspired her.  Over twelve years she and Koos Malgas created the hundreds of sculptures and relief figures that crowd the “Owl House” They used basic materials such as cement, wire and glass and playfully transformed everyday objects.  Her favourite animals, owls and camels, predominate, but all manner of real and fantastic beings are to be found.  Humans take the form of acrobats and graceful “sun worshippers” A procession of shepherds and wise men lead a vast, almost life-size camel train towards a nativity scene in a stable of tiered glass bottles. A sign on the fence orientates the tableau towards an “East” and seamlessly integrates Christianity with her fascination with the Orient.  The yard is dotted with sphinxes, Bhuddas and sanctuaries of tiered glass bottles that she called her “Meccas”.  A tall mesh fence and a stand of tall, Queen of the Night cacti barricade an arched entranceway from the street, watched over by a stoic double-faced owl.  Like the elaborately bottle-skirted hostesses within the yard, this arch must have been intended to welcome the awed visitor to this land of mystery and enchantment, but the fence speaks plainly of an increasingly troubled relationship between Helen Martins and the outside world.

She was born in December 1897 and grew up in Nieu Bethesda, the youngest of six children.  She was considered an intelligent scholar, and obtained a teacher’s diploma in nearby Graaff-Reinet. She married a local farmer, Johannes Pienaar, but the marriage did not last. Knowledge about her activities at the time is sketchy and often contradictory. She spent some time in the Transvaal, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. 

She returned to Nieu Bethesda in the 1930’s to care for her ailing and elderly parents. All of the children were fond of their mother, but their father was apparently a moody and difficult man they called “The Lion”.  Helen’s mother passed away in 1941. Some time afterwards her father moved into a small, dismal room off the verandah where, with the aid of a social worker, he fended for himself. “Oom” Piet Martins died in 1945 and Helen was left alone, with few prospects, in this remote and isolated Karoo village. Some time afterwards “Miss Helen”, as she became known, began to transform her surroundings. Another marriage followed in 1952, this time lasting only three months. She also had a long-standing relationship with a man who did not live in Nieu Bethesda, but who visited from time to time and who assisted with some of the structural work in the house.

She sought praise and attention through her work but, as time progressed, derision and suspicion grew and she became increasingly reclusive.  To some extent, she played along with her eccentric reputation, claiming that it simply allowed her more time to pursue her work.  She was notorious for not taking care of herself and as time, arthritis and the arduous nature of the work took its toll, she became increasingly shy and took pains to avoid seeing people in the street.  The few friends she had described her as being intensely passionate, who became animated and excited when discussing her latest ideas.

To pursue her vision she managed to endure great physical and emotional hardship. This lasted until her eyesight began to fail.  On a winter’s morning in 1976, at the age of 78, she took her own life by swallowing caustic soda.  It was her wish that her creation be preserved as a museum. Her desire to be recognised as an artist is realised in the attention to detail the Owl House and the fact that her artwork, once the object of derision and embarrassment, has become the single most important asset in Nieu Bethesda.

In a fertile valley of the Sneeuberg, Nieu Bethesda lies in the heart of the Karoo.  It was once a small but vibrant centre for the local farming community but was eclipsed by larger towns and went into decline.  This resulted in an impoverished and isolated community. Ironically, it also left the village with a rare architectural integrity. The Owl House has transformed the village into a tourist attraction.

Nieu Bethesda is northwest of Graaff-Reinet, which is on the N9 south of Middelburg, which is at the intersection of the N9 with the N10. Turn west off the N9 close to its intersection with the R61 north of Graaff-Reinet to Nieu Bethesda. A visit to this tiny, remote village in the Karoo is worth the effort! AXOwl

Contct:            Owl House Foundation
Poste Restante Nieu Bethesda 6286
+27 (4923) 605 telephone

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Last update: 2009-07-15 15:08
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.1

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