Nestling at the foot of the Sneeuberge Mountains in the Eastern Cape is the small village of Nieu-Bethesda. This village, like so many small Karroo towns, began as a Dutch Reformed church settlement in 1875.
Today the town is on the tourist map and has become a haven for artists and others wishing to escape the stress of city life. The town still has no petrol stations, no banks nor credit card facilities and has remained unspoilt and much as it was 140 years ago.
So what attracts tourists and would-be residents to Nieu Bethesda? The area surrounding the village is well-known for its rock formations and fossil remains and, as such, is of interest to geologists and palaeontologists; mention Nieu Bethesda however, and most people would immediately know of it because of the Owl House – the extraordinary home of Helen Martins, a most extraordinary woman.
Helen Martins was the youngest child of Hester and Petrus Martins. She was born in 1897 in Nieu Bethesda, in the house which was later to become the Owl House. Her father had dairy cows and supplied the village with milk. He was a regular church-goer and avid bible-reader – unfortunately he was also an unlikable, dishonest man who dominated the family and made the lives of his wife and children unpleasant, with his petty rules and jaundiced views.
Schooling in those days, in that remote little town, was basic. The local school went up to Std 7 and after a further 2-4 years study at another institution, students could qualify as teachers. Helen was a clever, quiet student – after she finished at the local school she spent four years at the Teachers’ Training College at Graaff-Reinet and in 1918 was awarded her primary school teacher’s certificate.
Helen taught school in Wakkerstoom for 18 months before she married Willem Johannes Pienaar on 7 January 1920, in Volksrust. Willem, also a teacher, was very clever and a talented actor and dramatist. He was also a charming philanderer and the marriage appears to have been rocky from the start. Helen, who had a fear of having and rearing children, had two abortions during her marriage. The couple were officially divorced in 1926 and Pienaar, due to his unpopular political leanings, fled to England, leaving behind substantial debts. Helen, with her strict Calvinist upbringing was, in later years, deeply troubled by her divorce and the two abortions she’d had whilst married to Pienaar.
Return to Nieu Bathesda
After her divorce Helen lived in various places and worked in menial positions. When her mother (whom she adored) fell ill in 1927, she returned to Nieu Bethesda and the family home, to nurse her.
The Owl House, then the family home, is an ugly little house with a flat-roof and seems to sink into its surroundings. Helen had no love for her father and though he was living in the house when she was looking after her mother, she seems to have ignored him. Later, he lived in an outside room on the property where he appears to have fended for himself.
The years that Helen tended her ailing mother and difficult father were lonely, isolated years. She had one good friend, a Mr Johannes Hattingh, a married man, with whom she had an affair. Hattingh lived with his wife and daughter in the village; he was a builder and began to help Helen with odd jobs around the house. They remained in a close relationship and even when the Hattingh family returned to Peddie in 1947, Hattingh returned periodically to visit Helen. When he died in 1963, Helen was heartbroken.
After both her parents had died (her mother in 1941 and her father in 1945) Helen began her life’s work in transforming the Owl House. By this time she had few dealings with the white community of Nieu Bethesda – she was, however, on friendly terms with the coloured people who lived on the fringe of the town – a fact which did not go unnoticed by her white neighbours and which alienated her even more.
Helen became obsessed with light and wanted to transform the interior of the house into a gleaming sensation of colour. She began in the entrance hall; she painted the walls with varnish, then plastered them with coloured ground glass while the varnish was still wet. She collected coloured glass bottles and broke them into small pieces and then ground them even further by smashing them with a hammer.
Helen was so pleased with the results of her entrance hall that she then went on to do the rest of the house in the same way – in the other rooms, however, she used coloured paint instead of varnish and stuck the ground glass to the wet paint. Sh painted the ceilings as well as the walls. She had mirrors cut in the shapes of sun rays, moons and stars and these were hung in every room. She had a vast collection of paraffin lamps and giant candles and when these were all lit and the light reflected on the coloured glass, the sensation of light and colour was incredible.
A couple of the interior walls were replaced and huge panes of glowing coloured glass were inserted in their stead. Helen would sleep in different rooms just to enjoy the kaleidoscope of colour each room offered.
The house was filled with all matter of clutter and kitsch, which rubbed shoulders with other, more elegant collectibles. The dining-room has glass encrusted walls and a geometric design in mauve painted on the ceiling. The furniture is antique – an elegant table and six ornate chairs are stationed next to the window-sill which contains two candlesticks, wrapped in tinsel, and a crude drawing of a camel on a piece of old board. Such was the eclectic nature of the interior.
Helen’s finances were practically non-existent. She had no income and apart from the money her sister sent her she had almost nothing. At one stage, she brewed and sold alcohol to the coloured community, despite this being highly illegal. Food played a very small role in Helen’s life – she subsisted on tea, rusks and meals that kind neighbours left for her. Her kitchen, like the rest of the house, was a riot of colour but was totally impractical, the only means of cooking was on a primus stove.
Throughout the house there are numerous statues of owls (thus the name Owl House) – the kitchen alone has four owls, and counting those in the yard, there are 80 owl statues altogether.
In July 1953 Helen made a surprise marriage to Johannes Niemand but she left him after two or three months and they were divorced a few months later.
Helen’s back yard, a mere 32m by 32m including the house, contains an amazing array of cement statues. There is no unifying theme – camels are placed next to mermaids, lambs and pyramids, while peacocks and owls are scattered amongst images of the sun, moon and stars. There are about 470 cement sculptures which completely fill the tiny yard; many of the statues are life-size.
To help her with the statues Helen had, over the years, employed three coloured men who did the heavy work. The last man to help her, Koos Malgas, said that Helen had the ideas and he reproduced them in cement. The figures were made using a strong wire armature bent to the shape required, then covered with chicken wire and cement worked into the frame.
Many of the subjects were repeated, often enlarged or in bas-relief. There are a number of human figures, including the sun-worshippers – little nude figures holding up their arms to the sky. There is also a set of female figures whose ‘skirts’ are made from tiers of coloured bottles. A tableau of the wise men on camels and shepherds with lambs makes another interesting feature.
Scattered throughout the yard there are numerous little ponds and birdbaths which Helen had filled with water for her birds. Initially the yard had been covered with wire netting to prevent the birds from flying away. She had peacocks, doves, Egyptian geese and chickens and she often nursed wild birds back to health. Over time, the netting disintegrated and the birds disappeared.
The Final Years
Gradually the Owl House began to be noticed by the outside world and people came to view Helen’s creations. She was proud of her work and pleased when people admired it. She thought of herself as an artist and was grateful when she was afforded that recognition.
Helen had a few regular visitors – friends who called on her and were concerned about her health and welfare. She was particularly fond of two young women who visited her and in whom she confided her worries. By the early 1970s, Helen’s health had deteriorated and she feared she was going blind. The thought of not being able to carry on with her creations both depressed and terrified her.
The years of isolation, alienation and loneliness, coupled with failing health took its toll and Helen sunk into a deep depression. On the 6 August 1976 she swallowed three tablespoons of caustic soda. She was found by her neighbour, barely conscious and unable to speak and was immediately taken to Graaff-Reinet hospital, where she lay unconscious until her death on 8 August.
In the years after Helen Martins’s death, her life and works have been the subject of intense analysis and scrutiny. The result of this is that the Owl House and Camel Yard have now been afforded the status they deserve – that is, the recognition of one woman’s lifelong imaginative journey to express her world and to find its meaning.
1997. Ross, Susan Imrie. This is my world: The life of Helen Martins, creator of the Owl House. Cape Town: OUP.
Images: courtesy Wiki commons