2.11.09

Helen Elizabeth Martins - Artist Extraordinaire 


On a cold winters morning in 1976, a sadly misunderstood old lady surrendered to her pain and loneliness. She took her own life by swallowing caustic soda. Her death brought to a full circle the sad and lonely life of one of South Africa's truly remarkable women and artists. Her name was Helen Martins. She was 87 years old and lived as a near recluse for the bigger part of her life. Yet she will become known and recognised as a creative genius; her creation, The Owl House, becoming the reason for the continued existence of the village of her birth.



Helen was born in the little Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda on 23 December 1897. She obtained a teachers diploma and moved to the then Transvaal Province to teach. In 1920 she married a fellow teacher and dramatist and with him moved around the country for the next six years. However, the marriage was troubled and in 1926 it ended in divorce. In the early 1930's, Helen returned to Nieu Bethesda to care for her aging parents until they passed away in 1941 and 1945 respectively.


Finding herself sad and alone back in the town of her birth, Helen decided to bring some light and colour into her life and environment. She started decorating the inside of her house with owls, sun-faces and other articles made from everyday objects and materials. She covered the walls and ceilings with intricate patterns, using crushed glass set in strips of brightly coloured paint. With the help of two labourers, Jonas Adams and Piet van der Merwe, she replaced the windows with huge panes of coloured class, flooding the inside of her humble with coloured light.


Once the inside of the house was filled with light and colour, she started on the outside. She teamed up with Koos Malgas, who soon proved to be invaluable to her. Together they created what would become known as the Camel Yard. They filled the yard with sculptures of cement and glass, featuring owls, camels and many other imaginative and visionary creatures, often depicting scenes from the Bible.


It is almost certain that Helen sought recognition, acceptance and approval through her work, but instead she experienced derision and rejection from the town's population and she withdrew more and more into herself until she became a virtual recluse. The physical and emotional hardships that the passionate pursuit of her vision brought her, took its toll and eventually brought her to that cold winters morning in 1976.


After her death, The Owl House fell into disrepair and some of the articles were removed. This caused an outcry and ownership of the house passed into the hands of the local council. Support organisations like Friends of the Owl House and a sponsor, PPC Cement, made financial contributions towards the upkeep of the house and in 1996 the Owl House Foundation was formed and now takes care of this significant cultural heritage site and tourist attraction. Thousands of tourists from all over the world visit this little Karoo village every year to enjoy the wonder of Helen's Owl House, thus giving her the recognition, acceptance and approval that she craved, but never received in her lifetime.


“She said she didn’t have plants but she grew beautiful statues.”

—Koos Malgas about Helen Martins

11 comments:

Dimple said...

How sad, and yet how typical, that those who are somehow different, especially the creative and innovative, are scorned while alive.
Thank you for this biography of an interesting and undervalued person.

RNSANE said...

What a terribly sad story! This poor lady died feeling undervalued and unappreciated and left such a legacy behind her. What is it about humans that we can do this to each other?

Her Owl House sounds like such an incredible place. Thankfully, much of the world has been blessed to see it.

Terry said...

this is such a sad story human kind.
why is it so with many artists that they get so depressed?
i used to work in a nursing home where there were two of the patients who were artists.
one, miss hagar had her own room and she had all her paintings of clowns all over the walls and on her dresser..they were all sad clowns.
she was allowed to drink beer as much as she liked and so there were even empty beer bottles around.
most of the nurses despised her and i felt so sorry for her..sometimes when i had a little spare time i would go in and talk to her. i felt really sad when she died..so alone!

the other artist, i forget his name but he lived in the behind closed doors part of the hospital with his wife. he had alzheimer's and so that is why he was in the locked section. his wife lived with him and when i was on the evening shift i used to make them tea and give them cookies...ha! their own little tea party.
he had in his time when his health was better, painted a huge painting on the auditorium wall in the nursing home...a painting that really struck me...it was a picture of an elderly man standing in his living room in a huge rich mansion and it showed his mind as he was thinking of a little cottage home where he probably used to live in his poor days.
it seemed that his desire was for that home!

this story of this dear lady has made me sad..i am happy though that someone is protecting her art and that some people like you are telling her story.....god bless you...love terry

DUTA said...

Many artists in the world got recognition only after their death; they were compelled to live a life of misery and want.
That's a very sad fact.

This case is particularly tragic as she was lonely and committed suicide.

leilani said...

WOW this was interesting! you honor her life thru this post =0)

A human kind of human said...

Thank you all for visiting. Yes, it is incredibly sad that instead of her art drawing people towards her, it seemed to have driven them away. I believe the blame should be laid at the door of the typical bigotry of the rural, calvinistic society she lived in. They simply did not comprehend the symbolism in the scenes that she created, almost a kind of xenophobia.

Firefly said...

I got to visit the Owl House for the first time about two years ago and has to say that its a truely magical place. Helen Martins created something that will hopefully be preserved for the generations to come.

Tim Bouwer said...

We visited this house in 2000 and it made a big impression on our whole family. Very sad story indeed.

Beautifully written!

Estienne said...

I recently went to visit the owl house and as i am open to the spiritual realm i had some very intense experiences in some areas of the house. I however do not know much about Helen's life story but i can tell you this much..there is still a lot to be uncovered. Bless you for telling her story.

Judith Grobler said...

It is cruel that she had to endure such pain. I have found the most beautiful people are usually molded by the hands of intense emotional suffering. She had such incredible magic inside of her. Her sensitivity made her create a kinder world inside the walls of the Owl House and Garden to escape the harsh community. It is ironic that the descendants of the very people who caused her to isolate herself, will continue to cherish her work for generations...

Anonymous said...

In a artist lives a soul that only a artist can know