Owl House reflections in Nieu Bethesda

2014-10-29 13:00 - Dawn Jorgensen
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In the Camel Yard cement figures of men, priests and wise men worship a false East, a Mecca of sorts. Only one stands tall, pointing towards the true direction.

I wonder, is this an interpretation of humanity, how we too often chase the wrong things?

Most people know Nieu Bethesda for its Owl House, immortalised by Helen Martins, or Miss Helen as she was known. A woman who lived here most of her life, changing a modest Karoo home into one decorated with bright colours and crushed glass, a place shrouded by an element of mystery. 

Helen Martins was born and grew up in Nieu Bethesda, the youngest of six children she left for a period to obtain her teacher’s diploma and to marry, returning to care for here aging parents after the marriage fell apart. Helen adored her mother, but had a difficult relationship with her notoriously difficult Father. After losing her Mother and with her Father’s health ever failing and his abusive ways intensified, she exiled him to an outside room. After his passing she bricked up the windows of the room, painted it black and marked it “The Lion’s Den”, placing a cement lion at the entrance to guard it.



(Dawn Jorgensen, The Incidental Tourist)

Legend has it that one night not long after, Helen was lying in bed contemplating the moon shining through her window and realised how dull and grey her life had become. Deciding there and then to bring light, reflection and change into in to it. This became the driving force that fueled her work and together with her assistant Koos Malgas, Helen dedicated the latter part of her life to filling her home with colour and creating a fantasy garden.

Click here to see more Owl House pics 

It is now an otherworldly place of concrete sculptures, Buddha’s, sphinxes, bottle-skirted hostesses, giraffes, snakes and owls. Time here evokes a mix of emotion - awe, curiosity and certainly sadness. The inside walls are encrusted with ground glass, the ceilings adorned with sun faces. Everywhere mirrors catch the light, bouncing varied versions of the world around at different times of day.

The house is filled with personal trinkets; candle sticks, beds covered with simply throws and wardrobes that hold delicate dresses and petite shoes. There’s a cement bath so small that only Helen could have fitted in it. A kitchen with a large glass window and pantry lined with shelves of bottled crushed glass. Outside and on the stoep are cages, which once held live owls brought to her over the years by farm workers…   


(Dawn Jorgensen, The Incidental Tourist)


It’s surreal and cluttered and a cool Karoo wind blows through the arch that was built to welcome people into her altered space. Yet the fence speaks of a troubled relationship between her and the outside community. On my numerous visits, whoever I speak to about Helen has a different interpretation of her intense sensitivity, unconventional love affairs and passions. In the camel yard hangs the sign that reads ‘This is my world’, which appears to be exactly how she lived it.

Diminutive in frame, Helen was brave, strong in her convictions and followed her own personal truth, yet she may well have been lonely as many in the conservative village snubbed her. On the ground in the Camel Yard, among the many pieces, is a small figure of a woman, beautiful, sitting flat on the ground her finger points to the sun. This is said to be Helen.


(Dawn Jorgensen, The Incidental Tourist)

At the age of 79 years, losing her sight and strength, Helen Martins took her own life by drinking a mixture of crushed glass caustic soda, a painful death, leaving the Owl House to Nieu Bethesda who only years later opened it up to the public.

Today the Owl House is sensitively cared for and operates as a Museum. Each time I walk through it I make new discoveries, find different angles and am offered a more intimate look into the life of this remarkable woman. She reminds that in the Karoo one is more aware of the sun and the moon, the stars, and that one should always follow your truth and passion. Finding your won world and place in the East.

If you decide to go...

The Owl House is open daily, expect on Christmas day and entry is currently at R50 per person.
For more information on the Owl House see http://owlhouse.org.za/

For additional information visit - 
nieubethesda.biz and nieu-bethesda.com

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