A Visit That Leaves an Incredible Footprint on the Mind


Owl House

by Cynthia Taylor



Nieu Bethesda and Owl House are one of my favourite places to visit and I have some truly wonderful memories, indeed three visits were not really enough, although the town is very small with a small population it has a way of drawing you back time after time.

The town is completely isolated and well off the beaten track you will have to drive approximately 60 km  from another interesting town called  Graaff Reinet,  Nieu Bethesda has only two roads leading in and out of it.  The town itself was established way back in 1875.  What has put it on the map is Helen Martins Owl House.  This place is incredible; I was truly fascinated with not only the marvellous art work but the whole history surrounding the creation of the art. Her medium was concrete and glass and she created some really intriguing figurines.  As you walk through the house it is ‘littered’ with her fascinating art.  The multi-hued panes of glass and wonderful bright coloured paints really capture the eye.

Nieu Bethesda is truly still untouched by modern life, visitors are reminded to make sure they have enough petrol to get there and out again, you will not be able to use your bank card as there are no facilities for them and over usage of cell (mobile) phones are discouraged.
Helen Martins grew up in this very strict Calvinistic village, she herself became quite a controversial figure, she had love affairs that really went against the thinking of the day, it is also said she had an abortion which was definitely considered extremely unconventional in her day.  As time went on she became more of a recluse in her home, using her art to express herself.

With the help of various assistants, she worked together with them to create and most extraordinary testament to her fertile imagination, the most well known assistant was Koos Malgas. The walls of the house have been encrusted with ground glass with mirrors strategically placed to capture the light; she also used candles and lanterns to encourage more light onto the mirrors creating different effects.



The yard is another revelation, is has been sectioned off to different aspects with her concrete and glass sculptures.

The camel yard itself is a testament to the East, with wise men and camels facing Mecca in permanent worship.  Many of the sculptures are unusual, maybe strange but very compelling; indeed I found them extremely fascinating.  Every visit I discovered something I missed the previous time, it truly is a most amazing place to visit.
Even in death Helen Martins at the age of 79 was unconventional, she committed suicide by drinking caustic soda. There are many rumours about her reasons for taking her own life.  But whatever reason drove her to do so in such a way it must have been an awful death. Although Helen Martins is no longer there, her legacy she has left to the world is a living testament to a mysterious and fascinating person. I truly would have liked to have known her.

Many artists use Nieu Bethseda as a retreat, it attracts crafters and creative people, the town continues in it slow pace of life, there are a few restaurants and guest houses, some art galleries and a pub.  Many of the local residents continue to watch the people and the world from their front porches drinking endless cups of coffee.  The town has other attractions and a walk around the town itself will give you an idea of a era long in the past of South Africa.

Visitors to Owl house will find that it is open to the public every day both summer and winter.  For a very modest fee you will be hugely entertained.



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