Created by Helen Martins Born 1898, Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa
Died 1976, Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa
The Owl House and the surrounding Camel Yard contain over 300 sculptures made from concrete and ground glass. Envisioned as a private Mecca, all the sculptures in the Camel Yard face east. This environment is the result of Helen Martins’ vision, realized with the help of three local workmen whom she commissioned to carry out much of the physical work. The Owl House and Camel Yard are located in the Karoo town of Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
“She said she didn’t have plants but
she grew beautiful statues.”
about Helen Martins
Helen Martins was nearly 50 years old before she decided it was time to do something remarkable with her life. In 1927, she had returned to her childhood home to care for her ailing parents. Sometime after their deaths, in 1945, Martins found herself sick and alone in the house. Looking around and seeing only gray, she decided she would take steps to brighten up her life. She began by covering every interior surface with colored ground glass. She hung mirrors on walls to reflect external light from room to room. Soon, she moved her creative energies outside and began transforming her yard as well. At the time, her activities were ridiculed. Today, however, Martins’ self-made environments, The Owl House and The Camel Yard, are visited by over 130,000 people annually.
Her Road to Mecca
The Owl House was essentially a transformation of Martins’ childhood home. She first employed the help of two local men, Jonas Adams and Piet van der Merwe,who helped her with structural alterations inside the house. Martins’ idea was to tap all available sources of light and allow them to reflect, shimmer and flow throughout the house. She did this with specially cut mirrors, strategically placed to capture sunlight and moonlight coming through windows. Light was also generated by candles and paraffin lamps, so numerous that lighting them all could take up to three hours.
In 1964, Martins employed the help of Koos Malgas, an itinerant sheep shearer and builder. It was Malgas who would help give tangible shape to Martins’ unique vision. In the morning over coffee they would together flesh out new ideas and directions for the sculptures that would populate The Camel Yard. In all, there are over 300 sculptures and a host of themes including Mecca, mermaids, pyramids and peacocks. And, of course, owls and camels, creatures dear to Martins’ heart.
Mecca is an overarching theme, and accordingly all figures face east. Martins had an extraordinary fascination for this holy city. She wanted to build a Mecca before she died. In search of photos, she located the Young Men’s Muslim Association, and began a correspondence with them, explaining that she hoped to build a Mecca of her own in her yard in South Africa. Martins’ Mecca was built from concrete and embellished with beer and wine bottles, “the absolute antithesis of what the Young Muslim men would have appreciated,” noted Martins’ friend. Mecca was inspirational to Helen Martins and she, in turn, inspired Athol Fugard, one of South Africa’s most imminent playwrights. Fugard’s The Road to Mecca is a story about a reclusive woman, a visionary artist who is shunned by her community. The play has appeared on stages throughout the United States and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1988.
From Picture Postcards to Life-sized Sculptures
In The Camel Yard, a sign reads “This is My World.” Martins created a world she knew only from postcards and book illustrations. The Dutch Ladies, life-sized sculptures which reach out to welcome visitors, were fashioned after images in a picture postcard. Mermaid “models” came from household objects, enlarged to over 100 times their original size. Sun-worshipper figures, Malgas says, were taken from the handle of a small bell inside the house. Illustrations from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Omar Khayyam’s The Rubaiyat were also given three-dimensional form in Martins’ garden.
The Vision of One Woman, the Work of Many
With time, Martins became more reclusive. Her appearance became increasingly untidy. She suffered from arthritis and depression and eventually began to lose her sight. Space in the yard was filling up, leaving little room for her artistic output. Depression overtook her and in 1976, Helen Martins committed suicide by ingesting caustic soda.
After her death, The Owl House fell into decline. Ownership was transferred to the Local Council and financial help was garnered through the Friends of The Owl House and PPC Cement. In 1991, Friends of The Owl House brought Koos Malgas back to Nieu-Bethesda to restore and care for The Camel Yard. The Owl House Foundation was formed in 1996. Today The Foundation, together with the Local Council, administer Martins’ legacy. Each year, over 130,000 people visit this off-the-map attraction in Nieu-Bethesda.
After Helen Martins’ death in 1976, The Owl House fell into decline. Ownership was transferred to the Local Council and financial help was garnered through the Friends of The Owl House and PPC Cement. In 1991, Friends of The Owl House brought Koos Malgas back to Nieu-Bethesda to restore and care for The Camel Yard. The Owl House Foundation was formed in 1996 and jointly administers Martins’ legacy with the Local Council. Each year, over 130,000 people visit this off-the-map attraction in Nieu-Bethesda.
The Owl House is open seven days a week, from April to September, 9AM to 5PM and from October to March from 8AM to 6PM It is closed on Christmas Day. Tel. 049-841-1603. Times subject to change.
It is said that she lay ill in bed one night, considering how dull and grey her life had become, when she resolved, there and then, that she would strive to bring light and color into her life. That simple decision, to embellish her environment, was to grow into an obsessive urge to express her deepest feelings, her dreams and her desires.
— Encounter South Africa Magazine
Off the Map- A look into backyard paradises created by visionary artists around the world