Within the small town of Nieu-Bethesda, which lies in the area called the Great Karoo, is a fascinating display of works from concrete and glass, found in an eccentrically decorated house called the "Owl House".
Nieu-Bethesda, set in a fertile valley of the Sneeuberg Mountains, lies in the heart of the vast, arid and dramatic territory known as the Great Karoo. The town was once a small but vibrant centre for the local farming community, but in the 1940's and 50's the village became eclipsed by the larger towns in the district and went into decline.
In this obscure town lived a reclusive artist, Helen Martin, who, over a twelve year period, created a breathtaking display of works from concrete and hand-ground glass. This she did in the own backyard of her own home, which is now called the Owl House.
Helen Martins was born in December 1897 and grew up in Nieu-Bethesda as the youngest of six children. She obtained a teacher's diploma in nearby Graaff-Reinet and, around that time, married Johannes Pienaar; a teacher, dramatist and in later years a politician. The marriage did not last long and knowledge about her activities in the years that followed is sketchy and often contradictory.
Helen returned to Nieu-Bethesda in the nineteen-thirties to care for her ailing and elderly parents. Her mother, who had long been an invalid, passed away in 1941. Her father died in 1945, and Helen Martins was left alone, with few prospects, in this remote Karoo village. It was some time after this, somewhere in her late forties or early fifties, that 'Miss Helen', as she became known, was to begin to transform her surroundings.
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 colour 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.
It is not known in what order the work was accomplished, other than the fact that the interior of the house was virtually completed before the exterior was begun. There was no overall plan, but what began as a decorative quest for light and colour soon developed into a fascination with the interplay of reflection and space, of light and dark and different hues. From the mundane articles that surrounded her, Miss Helen extracted and manipulated an emblematic language of sun-faces, owls and other images. This is all set against a luminous backdrop of walls and ceilings coated with elaborate patterns of crushed glass imbedded in bands of brightly coloured paint.
It was only when the interior of the house was virtually completed, that Helen Martins applied her imagination to the world beyond her door. She was particularly inspired by biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and the works of William Blake. Over a period of about twelve years, she and Koos Malgas, a local sheepshearer and builder, created from her imaginings the hundreds of sculptures and relief figures that crowd the 'Camel Yard' and cover the walls of the house. Her favourite animals, owls and camels, predominate, but all manner of real and fantastical beings are to be found. Drawn not only from Christian, but also eastern religious icons, all the figures in the Camel Yard face east.
This feature also inspired the title of writer Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca, which tells the sad story of the visionary artist who was shunned by her community.
The arched entranceway from the street, watched over by a stoic double-faced owl, is significantly barricaded by a tall mesh fence and a stand of tall Queen-of-the-Night cacti. Like the elaborately bottle-skirted hostesses within the yard, this arch must have been intended to welcome the visitor into her 'world', but the fence speaks plainly of an increasingly troubled relationship between Helen Martins and the outside world.
In 1976, Helen Martins committed suicide by swallowing caustic soda.
Today, the Owl house is the main tourist attraction of Nieu-Bethesda, which, because of the lack of development, has a rare historical and architectural integrity.
The latest annual count of visitors to the Owl House has topped 13000. As a direct result, the village now also offers 16 guesthouses, two restaurants, a coffee shop, a pub, and two art galleries.