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