The dusty little village of Nieu Bethesda is 55km from Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape Karoo. It's a detour off the N9 so not a place you ‘pass through’, but a destination. Most people who make the trip are lured here by The Owl House Nieu Bethesda, a world Helen Martins created. Using glass and cement she crafted something strange, sometimes disturbing, but always riveting.
Her mother died in 1941 and her father four years later. Now around 50 and tired of her drab life, Miss Helen started to change her environment, filling the house she’d inherited with light and colour, and creating hundreds of cement sculptures in the yard. Something of her relationship with her oppressive father can be intuited by the fact that she bricked up the windows of the room he’d lived in, painted it black and called it ‘the lion’s den’.
Visit the Helen Martins museum around the corner from the Owl House to watch a short video about Martins and the Owl House. You’ll also be able to browse some photos and letters, her teaching certificate and piano certificates. It’s sad to see how pretty she was when she was young and how the ravages of a life of hardship and poverty showed in her face as she aged. Her unconventionality put her at odds with many of the locals and she became increasingly unwilling to participate in the world outside the one she created at the Owl House.
She had written to a friend, ‘I see everything through a mist. The darkness is gathering around me – I am so depressed.’ Although it wasn’t diagnosed during her lifetime, it’s now thought that she was bipolar. Way back in 1952, she had written to Hattingh, ‘I am in hell, the days get heavier and darker.’
Her life was the inspiration for Athol Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca.
The Owl House opened as a museum in 1992. I’ve heard people say it’s dark and depressing, but I experience the interior as full of colour and light. Weird, yes; but not dismal.
The walls and ceilings are painted in bright colours and patterns, greens, yellows and reds, even pinks, all covered with crushed glass that she used to make in a coffee grinder in the yard and spray onto the paint while it was wet. It’s been said that glass grinding is what made her vision poor – the reason she wanted to fill the house with light and the reason she eventually killed herself – but she may have developed cataracts commonly associated with age as well.
There’s a collection of glass paraffin lamps in a cupboard in the sitting room, which is further livened up by a red window through which the sun shines in the morning. I imagine the house must be different in the afternoon, with different rooms coming to life.
The kitchen has a vast collection of old utensils and tins lining the shelves, as if they’re waiting for Miss Helen to come back in from her work in the Camel Yard. A large yellow sun with red background covers the ceiling, said to be inspired by the picture on the lid of a tin of Sunbeam polish. Off the kitchen is a long narrow bathroom, with a cement bath and mermaids.
Outside in the Camel Yard, Miss Helen’s ‘outsider art’ really comes to life, a baffling and intense brew of religious tableaus and mythical figures, some half-man, half-beast. Here the imagination seems more tortured. Inside it’s all bright lights and bright colours, but here the figures – inspired by the bible, and the poetry of Omar Khayam and William Blake – are distinctly darker, with strange creatures and tormented poses.
It’s slightly claustrophobic, with the sculptures stuffed into a space too small to hold them all. If you look more closely, though, there’s a weird order to some of the processions.
The original entrance to the Camel Yard was a moon gate, where you would have been welcomed by ladies in crinoline dresses – cement torso and head, but bottles for their skirts – but as Miss Helen became more reclusive, she sealed off the entrance.
You may be mystified by some of what you see, even troubled, but there’s no denying Miss Helen’s creative impulse to carve out a new world, or her incredible drive to see it through.
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