Written by Marianthe Smart
Note: The author's views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of RetoxMagazine.com
The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda
Three articles about three fantastically unique artistic destinations
Picture a desert. The middle of the hot nowhere, in the middle of South Africa. Suddenly, a green valley. A 130 year old village. At night, it is lit by vicious starlight. The only competition the stars have? A little house covered in concrete and crushed glass. The Owl House. Nieu Bethesda. In the late 30s a sad but brilliant woman came back to her childhood home to care for her parents. No one really knows what she’s been doing, or where. She was married, but not anymore. By 1945 the woman is alone. By 1975 she is surrounded by over 500 others, but by 1976 she is gone. Again, no one really knows the details, but Miss Helen has taken her own life and left behind a garden of hundreds of glass and concrete statues surrounding a house wallpapered with mirrors and crushed glass.
The Owl House.
The origins of the Owl House may be heartbreaking, but what artist Helen Elizabeth Martins (fondly known as Miss Helen) left behind is anything but. Her life’s true love can be visited any day of the year save for Christmas as it was Miss Helen’s wish to preserve and share the Owl House as a museum.
The Owl House.
In her lifetime, Miss Helen’s art was met with suspicion and condemnation that fueled her reclusiveness and self-neglect. Yet that did not stop this remarkable artist from continuing to place mirrors all over her home to catch the light at every time of the day, or from building hundreds of camels and figures in her garden, now named the Camel Yard. Most of the figures exultantly face East, many seem to be worshiping, wise men and even mermaids looking to a nativity scene and metal sign reading ‘East/Oos’. Some also face the proud sign, ‘This is my World’. It is an almost mystical place, spiritual. There is joy in the many cheeky, jovial scenes, but also a sad poignancy, even an eerie feel when you look into some of the concrete faces. Yet one thing is certain, it is an absolutely intense place. You cannot help but feel something as you wonder the concrete forest, especially when happening upon yet another owl, Miss Helen’s totem animal. If you’re lucky enough, you may even visit when the house is opened at night and lit by candles, every bit of light reflecting off the ground glass that Miss Helen painted into the walls. Poignantly, one could wonder at how Martin’s incorporated light into every facet of her beloved Owl House, despite her troubled life.
The Owl House.
This esoteric destination has turned Nieu Bethesda into one of South Africa’s greatest treasures. Set within a nature lover’s heaven and even on a fossil trail, Nieu Bethesda and her Owl House are one-in-a-million. Miss Helen’s life’s work not only captures the imagination of every visitor, it also inspires contemporary local artists and even playwrights in the form of Athol Fugard (in his play The Road to Mecca). If there was ever a place to be inspired it’s in Nieu Bethesda, in Miss Helen’s painstakingly created haven that she made to escape her own demons so that maybe others could escape theirs.
The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda, South Africa.