The otherworldly Owl House

2012-09-25 09:10

Before 1945 the tiny Eastern Cape town of Nieu Bethesda was hardly noteworthy. Being an agriculture center for the surrounding farms, life in this Little Karoo village was mostly focused on keeping the Angora sheep and Karoo lambs fat, healthy, sheared and slaughtered.

And, as in many small towns, residents probably tended to their daily business as quietly as possible, lest they became the next hot gossip topic.

But there was one woman who refused to pay attention to the lambs, the sheep and most importantly the rules. Although she underwent the due scrutiny, she also unwittingly managed to transform a somewhat dull town into one of South Africa's artistic gems.

Enter the eccentric Miss Helen Martins.

Never heard the name before? Well, in short, Miss Martins was thecreative force behind Nieu Bethesda's Owl House, a weird and wonderful paradise of concrete figurines and light reflecting glass.

Once a source of shame and embarrassment for Nieu Bethesday, it is now a national monument that draws thousands of visitors to the little Karoo every year.

Brief history

Helen Martins started working on this magnum opus in 1945 when she was in her late 40s. As legend goes it all started when she was lying in bed ill one night contemplating the drabness that had come to characterise her existence. The moon was shining in through a window and she suddenly felt inspired to bring colour and light back into her life.

But what exactly led up to this decision?                                                         

Helen Martins was born in Nieu Bethesda in 1897 where she also spent a rather unhappy childhood. She suffered many insecurities, mainly due to her parents' unhappy marriage and the amputation of her little toes as a young girl, and was considered something of an odd one out by the kids in their neighbourhood.

She left the town as soon as she could to study teaching in Graaff Reinet after completing her standard 8 certificate in 1914. During this time she even managed to find love and things started looking up when she married Willem Johannes Pienaar, a fellow teacher-turned-dramatist, in 1918. The couple moved to the Transvaal where they performed in a variety of Willem's theatrical productions together, but sadly their marriage took strain and they got divorced in 1926.

The little town of Nieu Bethesda seen from afar. Courtesy of www.karoospace.co.za

Lonely and at a loose end, Helen returned to her home town sometime between 1927 and 1929 to take care of her elderly parents. Being an extremely shy and private person, Helen seldom made an effort to move outside the boundaries of her home, and soon became something of a hermit. She was once again left alone when her mother died in 1941 followed by her father's passing four years later in 1945. They left the house to her and she remained in Nieu Bethesda.

It was also after the death of her father that Miss Helen started conceptualizing the redesign of her inherited home.

Creation of the Owl House

The simple resolution she made while lying in bed that moonlit night finally led to Miss Martins to reinventing her once mundane living space into a magical dreamworld of concrete friends, bright colours and luminous reflections.

She completed the house's interior first, and feeling inspired by this new lease on life, decided to extend her work to the outside spaces.

Some of the inhabitants of The Camel Yard. Courtesy of www.tate.org.uk

For this phase, however, she realised that she would need the help of someone stronger and younger than herself and employed the former sheep-shearer, Koos Malgas. He soon developed an effective technique of blending cement and glass that would eventually bring Miss Helen's wildest imaginings to life in perfect sculpture form.

Surprisingly it was Koos, and not actually Miss Helen, who sculptured each and every one of these beings. Helen was, however, the creative director (so to speak), explaining her visions to Koos during their daily meeting over early morning cups of coffee.

The Camel Yard and the Owls

Over a period of about 12 years Miss Helen and Koos joined forces to create the hundreds of sculptures that still populate every nook, cranny and wall of Helen's house and garden. With her staunch Christian background and acute fascination with the orient, Miss Helen's garden soon came to resemble a jumbled scene of wise men, the Nativity, camels, churches, stars, pilgrims, acrobats, Buddhas, lions, suns and mosque-like models. Quite suitably she named this back garden the ‘Camel Yard.'

A nativity scene pays homage to Miss Helen's Christian upbringing. Courtesy of www.travelpod.com

According to one of her other helpers, Piet van der Merwe, a lot of Miss Helen's inspiration for the figures came from a big book. Piet could not read, and thus could not identify the book, but it is assumed to have been an old family Bible that Martins always kept close at hand.

The most prominent feature of Miss Helen's house, however, is probably the majestic arched entrance, known as the Moon Gate. Upon this arch a large two-faced owl watches over both the yard and the road. Owls, being another of Miss Martins' great fascinations, can of course be seen throughout the yard and house in various shapes, sizes and postures.

 

Left: The Moon Gate Right: Miss Helen's colourful kitchen

Museum

Miss Helen's health deteriorated quite rapidly during these 12 years as her magnificent obsession eventually led to self-neglect. She also became increasingly shy of her appearance and avoided people more than ever before. It was probably a combination of ill health, deteriorating eye-sight and loneliness that finally led to her tragic suicide in 1976, when she swallowed a cup of caustic soda at the age of 78.

Apart from owls Miss Helen also harboured a fascination for camels. Courtesy of Marion Boddy Evans.

Even when Koos Malgas left the town in 1978, the people of Nieu Bethesda steered clear of the Owl House, allowing it to fall into disrepair.

It was only in 1989 that Miss Helen's wish to transform her house into a museum became a reality, when the Owl House was declared a provisional National monument. Since then it has been Nieu Bethesda's greatest tourism draw-card and one of South Africa's most fascinating, must-see destinations.

 
Read more on:    travel south africa
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