In the remote Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda is a fascinating world of concrete sculpture, fantastic figures and mythical beasts set around a house decorated with luminous paint and multicoloured panes of glass.
This is the Owl House, created by the reclusive Helen Martins and her labourer Koos Malgas in the 1940s and now regarded as a masterpiece of visionary art.
Nieu-Bethesda, set in a valley of the Sneeuberg Mountains, is in the heart of the vast and arid territory known as the Great Karoo. The town was once the vibrant centre of the local farming community, but in the 1940s and ’50s was eclipsed by larger towns in the district and went into decline.
Having lived and worked in different parts of South Africa, in her late forties Martins found herself divorced and alone, her parents dead, and back in the tiny town in which she grew up. The Owl House was her attempt to bring light, life and colour into her lonely grey world, and soon became a major obsession.
Martins was born in December 1897 and grew up in Nieu Bethesda, the youngest of six children. She obtained a teacher’s diploma in nearby Graaff-Reinet and moved to the then Transvaal province to teach.
In 1920 she married Johannes Pienaar, a teacher, dramatist and in later years a politician. The couple lived on her brother Peter’s farm at Wakkerstroom in the Transvaal, and appeared in theatrical productions together. Helen also spent time in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The marriage was troubled and officially ended in 1926.
In the late 1920s Martins returned to Nieu Bethesda to care for her elderly parents. Her mother died in 1941 and her father in 1945. She was left alone, with few prospects, in the remote Karoo village. Some time after this, when she was in her late forties or early fifties, she began to transform her surroundings.
Light and colour
The story goes that Martins lay ill in bed one night, the moon shining through the window, dwelling on how grey her life had become. There and then she resolved to bring light and colour into her life.
It is not known in what order the work was done, other than that the interior of the house was virtually completed before the exterior was begun. There was no overall plan, but what began as decoration soon developed into a fascination with the interplay of reflection and space, of light, dark and different colours.
From the mundane articles around her, Martins created sun-faces, owls and other images. These were set against a luminous backdrop of walls and ceilings coated with elaborate patterns of crushed glass embedded in bands of brightly coloured paint.
It was only when the interior of the house was virtually completed that Martins applied her imagination to the world beyond her door. She was particularly inspired by biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and the works of William Blake.
A unique creative partnership
In order to accomplish the transformation of her environment, Martins hired the services of local workmen. First Jonas Adams and then Piet van der Merwe were employed with structural modifications to the interior of the house – mostly replacing original windows with the vast panes of glass that bathe Martins’s home in multicoloured light.
In 1964 or thereabouts, she employed itinerant sheepshearer and builder Koos Malgas, who quickly developed techniques for manufacturing cement and glass sculptures. Martins obviously appreciated his ability and soon he was regularly employed on the creation of the Owl House.
Every sculpture would be discussed beforehand over early morning coffee in the kitchen and, although Martins seldom did any of the physical work, together they would engineer each new inspiration into being. This process developed into a unique creative relationship that clearly defines Malgas’s integral part in the creation of the Owl House.
Over about 12 years Martins and Malgas created from her imaginings the hundreds of sculptures and relief figures that crowd the Camel Yard and cover the walls of the house. Owls and camels – her favourite animals – predominate, but all kinds of real and fantastical beings are to be found. A procession of shepherds and wise men lead a vast, almost life-size camel train toward the east, integrating Christianity with Martins’s fascination for the Orient.
The arched entranceway from the street, watched over by a stoic double-faced owl, is significantly barricaded by a tall mesh fence and a stand of tall queen-of-the-night cacti. Like the elaborately bottle-skirted hostesses within the yard, this arch must have been intended to welcome the visitor, but the fence speaks plainly of an increasingly troubled relationship between Martins and the outside world.
An intensely passionate person
It is certain that Martins sought praise and attention through her work, but as time passed, and derision and suspicion grew in the village, she became increasingly reclusive. She was notorious for not taking care of herself and as time, arthritis, and her arduous work took its toll she became shy of her appearance and took great pains to avoid seeing people in the street.
The friends she had, however, describe her as an intensely passionate person who became animated when discussing the latest ideas for her creation.
To pursue her vision, Martins endured great physical and emotional hardship – until her eyesight began to fail. On a winter morning in 1976, at the age of 78, she committed suicide by swallowing caustic soda. It was her wish that her creation be preserved as a museum.
Helen Martins After Martins’s death Koos Malgas stayed in the district for a further two years, until he moved to Worcester. In 1991 he was persuaded to return to Nieu Bethesda, where he helped restore Owl House until he retired in 1996. Koos Malgas passed away in Graaff-Reinet on 20 November 2000, in his early sixties.
Martins’s desire to be recognised as an artist is magnificently realised in the attention the Owl House receives, and in the fact that her artwork, once an object of derision and embarrassment, has become the most important asset of the village of Nieu Bethesda.
The latest yearly count of visitors to the Owl House has topped 13 000. As a direct result, the village now has 16 guesthouses, two restaurants, a coffee shop, a pub and two art galleries. Economic development has, so far, proceeded with suitable regard for the cultural and historical integrity of the village.
The Owl House Foundation
After Martins’s death in August 1976, the Owl House fell into disrepair and some articles were removed. After an outcry of concerned individuals the property was transferred to the ownership of the local council. Support organisations – most notably the Friends of the Owl House (Fooh) and their primary sponsor, PPC Cement – made physical and financial contributions to its upkeep.
In 1991, Fooh brought Koos Malgas back to Nieu Bethesda to restore and maintain the Camel Yard. It is thanks to these initiatives that the Owl House survives in relatively good condition today.
In 1996 the Owl House Foundation was formed as a non-profit organisation made up of Nieu Bethesda residents, the local council, PPC Cement and Fooh to provide a more consistent and locally based administration for a significant cultural heritage and tourist attraction. The foundation administers the Owl House by legal arrangement with the local council.