Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Owl House

 Michael - Thursday

Road through the Karoo

Nieu Bethesda in the valley

Helen Martins in front of one of her suns
The Karoo is a great semi-arid expanse in central South Africa, and Nieu Bethesda is a small town there. It’s off the beaten track. You start at Graff-Reinet, a larger town in the Eastern Cape on the highway to the south coast, head north until you reach a minor road west, and follow that until it peters out to a dirt road entering the village. Nieu Bethesda is not very different from many places in the Karoo. It’s more or less as it was fifty years ago, not so much because it’s been preserved, but rather because no one ever saw a reason to change anything. Even today it’s certainly no tourist Mecca, but it offers a fossil museum in honour of James Kitching, a local palaeontological legend, as well as a Bushman museum, and a couple of guest houses. However, the main attraction is the Owl House, which is regarded as one of the most important examples of “outsider art” in the world today, and was declared a National Heritage Site in 2017. It’s the creation of Helen Martins, and she devoted the latter part of her life to it, becoming more and more fixated on the work and more and more isolated from the rest of the world. As the fence surrounding her property proclaims, This is my world.

Helen as a young woman
Helen Martins was born in 1897 and grew up in Nieu Bethesda as the youngest of six children. She left the town to study to be a teacher, and then married a local farmer. That was short lived, and she travelled the country. In her thirties she returned to the town of her birth to care for her ailing parents. Her mother died in 1941 and her rather forbidding father followed four years later. Helen found herself alone in the shrinking town. She married again in her early fifties, but the marriage lasted only three months. After that, she had a long relationship with a man who visited from time to time. As she started the creation of her world – with many unconventional religious themes – her lifestyle, which would probably be regarded as mildly unusual and interesting today, was clearly an affront to the conservative burghers whose morals were dictated by the Dutch Reform Church that dominated the town. As she developed her vision for the house and its yard, derision and suspicion became the norm. She became reclusive and isolated herself from her neighbours, focussing more and more on her work. She had one regular worker helping her, and a small and ever decreasing group of friends. At some point, she named her home the Owl House after the many owl sculptures that featured in it.

Front of the Owl House

The camel yard


When I visited the Owl House, I enjoyed the pandemonium of themes and colours and styles, but I found it all rather poignant. One could trace the descent of this talented women into isolation and loneliness. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if she had settled in the already cosmopolitan Cape Town of the early twentieth century, for example, what she might have done with her life. Perhaps nothing. But in spite of everything she created at the Owl House, this was a deeply unhappy person.

When her eyesight began to fail, she realised that even her creation was to be hidden from her, that she would be alone in her head. At the age of 76, she took her own life by drinking caustic soda.

Sculpture of herself

May she have the peace I doubt she ever found in life.


  1. It is a very strange town, but worth the visit. When I was there, probably 15 years ago, I was able to lift a glass to Helen Martins at a local micro-brewery.

  2. How sad! The opaqueness of her story makes it even sadder. Looking at the things she made--at least from this distance--seems to tell nothing about what was going on inside her. At least her work lives on and is protected. I don't know that I could stand to get too close to what seems so tragic.

  3. Hard to imagine the deep despair in her life from her work, but from the way she took her life...caustic soda...God rest her soul.