Nestled in the dusty Karoo valleys of the Eastern Cape, Nieu Bethesda would be a little town like any other in the area were it not for one extraordinary feature setting it apart... the Owl House, and the woman behind its refracted narratives, Helen Martins.
Born in 1897 in Nieu Bethesda, Helen Martins (or Miss Helen as she was known) was the youngest of six children. Her father, Piet, was a notoriously subversive and difficult character with whom Helen shared a complicated relationship. Hester, Helen’s mother, was sickly for most of Helen’s life, though Helen adored her.
Helen received her teachers’ diploma in nearby Graaff Reinet and around that time married Johannes Pienaar, an atheist. Doomed from the start, the marriage was short-lived. The couple divorced in 1926.
Very little is known of Helen in the years following her divorce. She certainly spent time in Muizenburg, where it is believed that she worked in a restaurant. In 1930 she was called home to care for her ailing parents.
Her father’s stomach cancer amplified his contemptible and abusive nature to such a degree that Helen and her mother exiled him to an outside room. Hester died of breast cancer in 1941, and Helen was reportedly so devastated that she slept in the room with her mother’s coffin. After Hester’s death, Helen refused to have anything to do with her father and a social worker was called in to look after him.
After Piet’s death, Helen bricked up the windows of his room, painted it black and affixed the words “The Lion’s Den” to the exterior. Nobody was allowed to enter and Helen had a fierce and mangy cement lion constructed to guard the door.
Legend states that one night when Helen was lying in bed contemplating the moon shining in through her window, she realised how dull and grey her life had become and resolved in that moment to bring light and colour into her world. That simple resolution would become the driving force in her life, the obsessive expression of her deepest desires. Helen’s home would house a horde of real and fantastical creatures created out of her imaginings. Almost every surface would be covered in crushed glass. Mirrors would dominate the interior, reflecting and refracting light, opening up unexpected perspectives of Helen’s world.
All art reveals its creator. Helen spent the greater part of her life creating an alternate world around her that contrasted deeply with her disappointing daily reality.
In 1964 Helen employed Koos Malgas to help her in constructing the cement and glass statues which fill the “Camel Yard” outside her house. Malgas became Helen’s closest friend and companion and spent the last twelve years of her life at her side, much to the sneers and suspicion of her Apartheid-era neighbours.
It is not known in what order Helen tackled her great life’s work. It has been accepted that the interior of her house was completed before work on the exterior began. Mundane articles were translated into emblematic imagery. Sun-faces, owls and camels predominate. Helen was influenced by Biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam and the works of William Blake, and she was inspired by the postcards her sister Alida sent her from Egypt and other exotic global destinations.
Over a period of twelve years she and Koos Malgas created the hundreds of sculptures and relief figures that haphazardly crowd Helen’s space. The arched entranceway to the yard proclaims in twisted wire words, “This is my World.”
In the end, the Owl House became the story of Helen’s life.
Helen Martins died a gruesome death in 1976. She swallowed a mixture of caustic soda and crushed glass. She died in agony three days later. She was seventy-eight years old, was riddled with arthritis and was going blind. She was terribly depressed at not being able to live “fully” anymore.
She purportedly told a friend, “Dying isn’t the problem. Living is the problem. That is why we must live our lives passionately and to the full. My agony would be to “live dying” without being able to work.”
The Owl House was declared a National Monument in 1986. Koos Malgas (who left shortly after Helen’s death) returned to Nieu Bethesda in 1991 to restore and preserve the world he and Helen had created together. He died in 2000.
Helen Martins – The Outsider Artist:
- The sneers and derision of Helens’ two-faced neighbours inspired the double-headed owls which guard the front gatesThe processions of Pilgrims heading east to Mecca and Bethlehem are in fact heading south. When Helen discovered this error she hastily modelled a bilingual East/Oos sign on the gate, rearranging reality to suit her
Helen apparently hated confronting her own reflection, yet there is an abundance of mirrors
- The Honeymoon Room is a room with two single beds kept apart by an enormous wardrobe between them. When asked about the irony of this, Helen replied, “But love is always kept apart!” She most probably was referring to Johannes Hattingh, a married man she considered the great love of her life and with whom she had an affair with for some twenty years
- Helen reportedly slept in a different place every night to fully experience the effect of her amazing house
- Helen Martins did not have baby toes. Somewhere in the late 50’s or early 60’s Helen went to a surgeon to have her bunions removed. The surgeon bungled the operation and removed her baby toes instead. She was devastated by this mutilation of her feet.
- Helen was terrified of having children, fearing that they would be born with cloven hooves. She had at least one abortion in her lifetime, but could have had more. The only piece Helen made with her own hands is a literal reference to this fear... a stuffed buckskin bag from which protrudes one human leg and one buck hoof. Scribbles in her Bible indicate she may have suffered terrible doubts over her abortion/s
- It is certain that Helen sought praise and attention through her work. Her famous house drew visitors from all over. Often Helen was delighted, but sometimes she was so shy she refused to open the door. When she learned that she had inadvertently turned away renowned artist Walter Battiss, she was devastated
- She was known to often wander around her garden in the nude