the coffee-shop writer

Revisiting the Owl House

It is mid-December and the temperature is heading into the forties. The Karoo in mid-summer is not for the faint-hearted.

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It is mid-December and the temperature is heading into the forties. The Karoo in mid-summer is not for the faint-hearted, but the air is still fresh enough at 7 am. Heading out with a sandwich for ‘padkos’ and freshly brewed coffee from a service station in Graaff-Reinet feels a little like going on a school outing. Nieu Bethesda is roughly 50 km from Graaff-Reinet so there is ample time to stop to take photographs and still be be the first visitors through the Owl House’s door.

Nieu Bethesda

It is my first visit in about 15 years. Nieu Bethesda is still a very small town, but now there are a few more restaurants and guesthouses. It is a typical Karoo town with broken avenues of tall trees, ruins of clay-baked houses and goats grazing on the village common. The name, Nieu Bethesda, is a biblical reference to a place with flowing water and was founded in 1875 as a ‘church town’ for the surrounding farms.

On the way to the Owl House we pass the parsonage where tall cacti are in full bloom and two cement peacocks perch on a high wall. The Owl House faces a dry riverbed with old sluices and furrows suggesting a water-sharing system that is no longer in use. An informal craft market forms a neat row between the Owl House and the river so that visitors exiting the Owl House can buy perfect replicas of cement owls and hares. These are family businesses where a father, grandfather or uncle once worked for Helen Martins.

The Camel Yard is filled with an astonishing number of statues. It is a crowded space in every sense of the word. A large procession of pilgrims dominates the small yard. This time round I am struck by the tall barrier of cacti on the border of the property, the surreal grouping of giraffes and all the references to water. An abundance of water, although at the time, Helen Martins’ property had no access to the communal water and the Camel Yard’s ponds were filled daily by collecting buckets of water from a furrow in the street.

It was such a good idea to arrive early because by mid-morning the glare coming off the cement statues is almost unbearable.

The Owl House’s interior is cool and luminous and reminds me of a jewel box. Nieu Bethesda had no electricity during Helen Martins’ time. Her house was created to be seen at night and illuminated by paraTn lamps and candles. It is a space Dlled colour, Dltered light and reUections. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a house where the walls are covered in crushed glass.

Helen Martins (1898-1976)

Helen Martins was born on 23 December 1898 in Nieu Bethesda. She was the youngest of ten children (six survived). After school she qualified as a primary school teacher and taught in what was then the Eastern Transvaal. There, at the age of 22, she married a fellow teacher, Willem Johannes Pienaar. It was a troubled marriage that ended within a year when Pienaar started an affair. Martins returned to her hometown when she was in her early 30s to look after her mother who had breast cancer. Her mother died in 1941. After her mother’s death she banished and abandoned her father to windowless room, which she called ‘The Lion’s Den’. The room was painted black and had no access to the house, only an outside door. He died in 1945 of cancer.

She had a secretive relationship with Johannes Hattingh, a local builder, when she was in her mid 50s. Then a very brief marriage (three months) to Jakobus Niemand. Martins became very concerned about her health as she got older and her health and eyesight began to deteriorate. She told a friend that ‘my agony would be to “live dying” without being able to work’. Martins died on 8 July 1976 after taking a lethal dose of caustic soda. Her work is described as “outsider art” and was produced mostly from recycled material, glass bottles, mirrors and cement. Many of the sculptures were made with the help of local craftsman, including Jonas Adams, Piet van der Merwe, and Koos Malgas.

Further reading

  • A journey through the Owl House – A Emslie, Penguin Books (Cape Town), 1997
  • This is my world: The life of Helen Martins, creator of the Owl House – S Ross, Oxford University Press (Cape Town), 1997
  • The Owl House Foundation, www.theowlhouse.co.za