24 July, 2014

The Owl House at Nieu Bethesda

 - gardening for biodiversity 
in Cape Town, South Africa

This is NOT about owls as birds. It IS about the life and art work of Helen Martins, and Koos Malgas. We were heading for Addo in March 2010. The Ungardener loves game watching. 'Hunting' for elephants. We went via the Owl House, which has been on my See Before I Die list for years.

On the Owl Route to Nieu Bethesda and the Owl House

Nelspoort to Murraysburg

Helen Martins was from the story-book town of Nieu Bethesda in the Great Karoo, in the Eastern Cape. She was born in 1897. To put it into my own context, Helen was contemporary with my grandmother. Or since I was a laatlammetjie and my father turned fifty when I was only six months old - my great-grandmother. Look back thru your own family history and imagine an intelligent, creative, eccentric young woman. Growing up in an isolated, conservative, small country town. Even today, it is more a village than a town (Nieu Bethesda has no petrol, bank or credit card facilities. Fill up your tank and your wallet before you arrive!) Perhaps you don't have to imagine, perhaps there was a legendary Great Aunt Rose in Rome in your father's family.

Old car parked opposite the church
Lights on?

She was married briefly, twice. But as the youngest of six, and single, she was 'recalled' to care for her dying mother, then her father. Imagine, having known a different life, how strange, how claustrophobic small town life can be, if you don't fit in.

Pair of owls at the Owl House

Helen turned to light and colour. Her artwork is famous. She has inspired dissertations and books and pilgrimages like mine. Her creation fuels tourism to Nieu Bethesda. Give yourself the leisure to immerse yourself in her world, both the art in her home, and the enchanting town itself.

Acrobat in blue and silver at the Owl House

Imagine mythical, slightly menacing creatures. Ethereally perfect young girls. A step-thru-a-stitch-in-time experience. It is moving - the vibrancy of creation, held within deep sorrow. The sculptures are made of concrete. To achieve the light and colour, she collected old glass. Ran it thru a coffee mill. Sorted the result by colour and size. Those neatly arranged rows of jars in her pantry. Contain the proverbial ground glass - waiting patiently for the next project, which will, never come.

Coffee mill and glass bottles waiting at the Owl House

In the pantry rows of colourful jars.
Filled with ground glass! Not jam.

In 1976, when her eyes began to fail, and her life's work was complete, she took her own life.

Those flames that blaze at the kitchen hearth
are ground glass applied in shimmering layers
to the window glass

Look with me at the Owl House

In the Old South Africa, Helen Martins was The Artist Full Stop. In the New South Africa, she worked with Koos Malgas.

Pictures by Diana and Jurg Studer  
of  Elephant's Eye on False Bay 

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  1. My False Bay blog now has 40 posts. As the year turns I do hope to be engrossed in the new garden around our discovered carob tree.

  2. A seemingly quite slight post, it is one of the most powerful writings on Helen Martins and the Owl House I've read -perhaps because you take us into the woman, not overwhelm us with her work. I too have been fascinated since before her death, since before Athol Fugard's moving play and the pilgrimage to Nieu Bethesda will, I hope, happen early in my new caravanned life! I look forward to the next instalment. :) Thank you - Jack

    1. Thank YOU, I do appreciate your feedback.

      Caravanned life? Hope to hear more soon.

  3. Thanks for the tour Diana. The acrobat is quite beautiful. I can just make out the textures on the upper body, it looks like really intricate work. I like how you explained how she used broken glass and showed all those jars. They are artwork themselves. Very pretty. It must have been frustrating to her to go back to that little town but I wonder if the isolation didn't also spur on her work.

    1. her tormented life bore the fruit of thought-provoking art. But at what a cost to Helen herself!

  4. what an amazing lace to visit, I could spend hours here!

  5. Nieu Bethesda is such an amazing town and the Owl House is a very special place.

  6. I guess that old car ran out of petrol! I enjoyed this post about a fascinating artist. Her artwork could easily be the work of a local artist in my own time.

  7. Your posts always make me curious. So I browsed the internet to learn more. It made me sad. I don't know if it is because you mentioned that she took her own life, or because the statues are so strange.

    1. The place, the statues, are moving and other-wordly. What stays with me is the stepping into another world, to see thru Helen and Koos eyes, not the sadness.

  8. I can see why you wanted to visit...what a heart lifting creative space for one to wonder, wander and awe