The Owl House | Karoo Treasure

Photo by Robin Tweedy. Creative Commons License.

Photo by Robin Tweedy. Creative Commons License.

The Owl House and Helen Martins have fascinated me. She lived a lonely life and was ostracised by her community – yet she found her life purpose and meaning in the creation of the Owl House. The Owl House is a museum in Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape, South Africa. The house itself was inherited by Helen (b. 23 December, 1897) after her parents had died. The image above is from the “Camel Yard”.

For more than a century reclusive artist, in what is known as “outsider art”, Helen worked to transform her tiny home in the isolated Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda:

“…creating an intriguing world rich in personal symbolism and universal meaning. The garden became a sculpture yard populated by a throng of pilgrims and camels, owls, mermaids and other creatures, (in fact, over 300 cement/wire/glass sculptures), while the walls of the house were coated in colour and crushed glass to create sublime and unsettling effects. Anne Emslie leads us on a guided tour through the rooms of the house and along the paths of the sculpture yard, helping us towards an understanding of Helen Martins’ remarkable vision.”

From: A Journey through the Owl House.

Once the interior of her house was almost finished, Helen started to change her small garden. She was especially inspired by the Bible, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and William Blake. Over about twelve years, she and Koos Malgas, a local sheep-shearer and builder, created hundreds of sculptures and figures that fill the ‘Camel Yard’ and cover the walls of her house. Her favourite animals, owls and camels, are mostly seen, but all kinds of real and imagined creatures are also present. She referenced not only Christian, but also eastern religious icons. All the figures in the Camel Yard face east.

Legend has it that one night when Helen was lying in bed viewing the moon shining in through her window, she realised how dull and grey her life had become and decided in that moment to bring light and colour into her life. The image below is from the interior of her home.

Photo by Robin Tweedie.  Creative Commons License.

Photo by Robin Tweedie. Creative Commons License.

Helen created an external world that expressed her need for purpose, meaning and light. Below is a YouTube walk-through for those who are interested.

Images from Wikipedia are by Robin Tweedie, 2003.


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