The Owl House of outsider artist Helen Martins draws many visitors to the tiny town of Nieu Bethesda each year. The Owl House and its Camel Yard is quite literally a concrete example of letting nature back in.
I should think that even if one has read up on the Owl House and about Helen Martins, and seen lots of photographs, nothing can prepare one for the experience of being there, surrounded by so many expressive sculptures or immersed in the strangeness of the interior of the house.
Somehow the sculptures at the Owl House can seem simultaneously celebratory and ominous
The house interior is an unsettling mixture of quirky and obsessive, darkness and lightness, domesticity and alienation, displaying superficial kitsch and profound pain – when I was there the opposites ratcheted up inducing a sense of unease and dissonance, though I was simultaneously amazed and at times charmed.
The house is crammed with collected items, as in the kitchen, which was not a place where much food preparation was done, by all accounts. Mirrors are everywhere in the house, and many of the window panes are painted or replaced with coloured glass casting vivid hues such as the one above the kitchen range reflected in this mirror in the kitchen
Helen Martins was born in 1897 and grew up in the house that belonged to her parents. She moved away to study to be a teacher and while working as a teacher she got married. She returned to Nieu Bethesda during the 1930s, after the breakdown of her marriage, to look after her parents, who were both ill.
After the deaths of her parents she stayed on in the house, and when she was in her late 40s or early 50s she started altering the interior of the house in line with her intense desire to introduce light and colour.
This is the old range area that can be seen in the reflection in the mirror in the previous photograph. The intensity and colour of the light through the coloured window pains alters as the direction of sunlight changes throughout the day. The door on the left provides a glimpse of the concrete bath in the bathroom, and through the window on the right a silhouette of one the “hostess” sculptures outside can be seen
Helen Martins altered the light in the interior of the house by day by using tinted or painted windows, by filling the house with mirrors – many of which were cut to her specific designs including mirrors in the shape of the moon and the sun – and by removing some interior walls.
A mirror in the shape of the sun and another in the shape of a crescent moon
After dark, Martins would illuminate night the house using many, many lamps and candles, a few of which can be seen on the table in the photo above
In addition the lamps, candles and mirrors, Helen Martin introduced sparkling reflections to the interior of the house in the form of ground glass. After painting sections of the walls, ceilings, doors and door frames with glue or varnish, she and her assistants would stick ground glass onto the still wet surfaces. Most of these surfaces in the house are gritty with shiny fragments of glass.
Most visitors only see the house during the day, and can only imagine what the house must have looked like at night when illuminated by dozens of lamps and candles, this in an era before electricity came to the small town.
Small shiny grounds of glass can be seen on the surface of the wall in the above photograph. The picture on the left of wise men with a camel would be one of many such illustrations that provided guidance and inspiration for the Camel Yard sculptures. Several prints of the Mona Lisa are hung throughout the house, and there are relief sculptures copying the Mona Lisa on outside walls
Above is one of the grinders that Helen Martins used to grind glass bottles into fragments to stick onto the walls of the interior of the house and to incorporate into the concrete sculptures
The ground glass, classified by colour, was stored in bottles in the pantry, instead of food
A close up of a section of door frame and a painted wall encrusted with granules of glass in different colours, and one of the many wall-mounted lamps
A ceiling painted green and walls in different panels of colour all encrusted with glass, and yet another lamp – this one adorned with a Christmas bells decoration
Miss Helen, as she was known, would often grind the glass herself, or smash it using a hammer. It is thought that her deteriorating eye sight that led to near blindness at the end of her life was at least in part due to damage caused by working with ground glass.
In the left-hand photo above, a detail of the kitchen ceiling bordering a black wall, clearly shows glass fragments. On the right is a view of the entire painting on the ceiling depicting a sun, with its rays encrusted with ground glass. There are numerous paintings of the sun in the house, including on many of the window panes
Above is another room with glass encrusted walls and yet another print of the Mona Lisa. The mirror on the left reflects a collection of lamps on an old wash stand. The many reflections create a dense sense of layering. When unexpectedly seeing one’s own reflection in a mirror it comes as a shock and an uneasy sense that one is intruding on a space that remains so personal
This small courtyard is outside the kitchen as far as I recall. The figures of two men, one pouring wine, are copied from an illustrated copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Behind them is one of several relief sculptures inspired by the Mona Lisa
Looking out through a window with a line of sculptured owls along the sill, part of the Camel Yard, containing about 300 concrete and glass sculptures, can be seen with the koppies that surround the village visible beyond
Part of the same window photographed from outside with the light and shadows, the view of the interior through the glass, and the reflections providing a complex layering
The devotional quality of the many figures, some walking and some riding camels, is palpable. They are walking in the direction marked East in woven wire lettering on the perimeter fence. As already mentioned, she was influenced particularly by the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and also by William Blake, and she drew inspiration from different faiths, writers, books, illustrations and artworks as she laboured to depict her quest for a meaningful spirituality
The sculptured figures are made from concrete moulded over metal and wire frames. Many of Helen Martins’ ideas were taken from illustrations and paintings that fascinated her, and it was her particular vision that led to the design of each sculpture and the grouping of sculptures She worked with several assistants over the years, but in about 1964 she formed a long-term productive working relationship with Koos Malgas, a former sheep shearer and builder. He remained her assistant until her death in 1976
Helen Martins and Koos Malgas formed a unique creative relationship and friendship. Malgas devised techniques to help Martins bring her ideas to life through the sculptures. Neither of them received any credit for the work that they did during her lifetime. Two years after Martins’ death Malgas left Nieu Bethesda, but after the Owl House was provisionally declared a National Monument in 1989, he returned to Nieu Bethesda in 1991 to assist with restoration work in the house and in the Camel Yard. He also assisted biographers of Helen Martins by providing valuable information and insights into her vision and the work they did together. He retired in 1996 and died in November 2000.
Nature and animals have always informed human culture and cosmology and have been bound up in ritual practices and in human spirituality from the beginnings of human society. The Owl House demonstrates this interrelationship, with many animals prominent at the Owl House and in the Camel Yard, with owls in particular playing a seemingly totemic role in Helen Martins’ spiritual universe
The Camel Yard sculptures portray a strong sense of devotional questing
This figure of a man, facing the oncoming procession of people and camels, beckons with his left hand and points the way with his outstretched right arm (not seen in the photo), and conveys an authoritative serenity
Each figure is individual and expressive
The figure on the left is one of the “hostesses” seemingly welcoming visitors. Many little ponds, as the two visible in this photo, Martins would fill with water for her then captive birds. The reflections in these small ponds add both light and depth
One of the many unsettling vignettes – a hostess offers a drink to a disturbingly insouciant man in red
A touching depiction of the Nativity of Jesus. Unfortunately, most of the group of animals gazing at the crib with rapt attention are not in the photograph
Brief biographies of Helen Martin can be found here and here. I will not reiterate the details. It is far too easy to infer simplistic interpretations of her life and work and what motivated her. I read two detailed biographies (details below) discussing her life and work some years ago, and all I want to say here is that the complexity of her life and experience cannot fairly be summarised.
Her vision and work in the Owl House and the Camel Yard is powerful and disturbing. Although this work spanning many years brought light and accomplishment to her life, my memory of my visit to the Owl House is imbued with a great sadness. This sadness is only intensified by the knowledge that, at the age of 79, losing her sight and suffering from arthritis, Helen Martins took her own life by swallowing a mixture containing caustic soda. She was found and taken to hospital. She endured three days of unimaginable agony before she died.
Several verses by Omar Khayyám and William Blake are painstakingly reproduced in cursive script in wire work on fences at the Owl House. One word against the blue sky caught my attention.
I like to think of Helen Martins at night in her house illuminated by the flickering light of dozens of candles and lamps, watching the reflections in myriad star points of light from the thousands of glittering fragments of glass, and as she watches she is transported, she escapes the confines of her circumstances, she is dreaming.
Bekker, Melinda & Le Roux, Reinet. 2015. The Owl House and Camel Yard – Nieu Bethesda: Nomination document for a National Heritage Site. South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). http://www.sahra.org.za/sahris/sites/default/files/additionaldocs/Motivation%20document%20for%20SAHRA29apr_1.docx
Lyster, Rosa. 2018. A Visit to South Africa’s Strange, Astonishing Owl House. February 1. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-visit-to-south-africas-strange-astonishing-owl-house
The Owl House. 2018. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Owl_House
Two biographies of Helen Martins worth reading if you can find them:
Emslie, A. 1997. A Journey through the Owl House. Johannesburg: Penguin; Ross, Susan Imrie. 1997. This is My World: The Life of Helen Martins, Creator of the Owl House. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
Posted by Carol