Nieu Bethesda, a small farming community tucked away in a valley of the Sneeuberg Mountains in the Eastern Cape, is world renown for a peculiar, outsider, art-world perspective, the creation of the mind of Ms. Helen Martin. A reclusive Helen Martin and her paid laborer, Koos Malgas, transformed her home in the 1940s into a vision of light and sculpture unparalleled in the developed world.
Helen is a product of her times, having been born 1897 and growing up in Nieu Bethesda during the Victorian and Romantic movements. The youngest of six children, she was educated as a teacher in Graaf-Reinet and moved to what was them the Transvaal (across the Vaal River). While married and living there, she became involved in theatrical productions and became in love with the idealism of the times. But, when her marriage ended during the Roaring Twenties, she returned to Nieu Bethesda to care for her parents. Here, she withdrew into her own world that is the Owl House.
As the story goes, following the death of her parents, Helen laid ill in bed one night with the moon shining through the window. Her life, now shrouded in gray, had become oppressive where she resolved to bring light and color into her life. She began to transform the interior of the house by painting the walls and covering them with broken, crushed, colored glass, allowing light to be dispersed across each room. Each room’s decoration involves the embedding of crushed glass into bands of brightly colored paint.
It is said that Helen slept in a different place every night to fully experience the effect of her house. There are 4 bedrooms, each with its own unique decor, with a variety of cultural and outsider accessories. And, although it is rumored that she abhorred viewing herself in a mirror, these reflective surfaces abound throughout the house. One more interesting room, dubbed the Honeymoon Room, is fitted with two single beds separated by an enormous wardrobe. It is said that Helen’s reason for this arrangement was to validate the idea that “love is always kept apart!”
Never having borne children, possibly because of molestation by her father during her youth and experiencing at least one abortion, evidence for the fear of child birth can be found in the house. On the floor of the green bedroom is a stuffed buckskin wrapped, child figure with one cloven hoofed foot and one human foot, a reference to the devil. Such fears may be found in her Bible which indicate she may have suffered terrible doubts over her actions. While caring for her father in her later years after the death of her mother, Helen locked him in the front room of the house, the walls of which are painted black, until his death. Today, this “Lions Den” serves as the entrance to the heritage site.
Helen wasn’t always appreciated by the residents of Nieu Bethesda, and she endured great physical and emotional hardship until her begann to lose her eyesight. At the age of 78 on a winter morning in 1976, she committed suicide by swallowing caustic soda. It was her wish that her creation be preserved as a museum. Helen Martin’s house has remained untouched, except for routine maintenance by the Owl House Foundation (Die Uilhuis). The Foundation, established in 1996 in an effort to follow her wishes, and named a national monument during the end of the 20th Century.
The culmination of Helen’s artistic ideas are found in the sculpture garden surrouding the back of her house. Once the interior was redecorated to her vision, she hired the services of local workmen to transform this area. Sometime around the mid-1960s, Koos Malgas, an itinerant sheep shearer and builder, became her full time assistant. It is his dedication to creating her vision and his talent in concrete sculpture that one witnesses in the garden. Helen envisioned the sculpture and its placement, and Koos created her vision. They worked together to engineer each new inspiration into reality.
In the Camel Yard, pictured below, scores of statues– many of them wise men and camels–face East, towards a Mecca of sorts. Well, they don’t actually face East; they face South. But, with a modification to Helen’s yard by adding the word East/Oos on the gate, she rearranged reality to suit herself.