PLACES

In the heart of the Great Karoo, in the fertile valley of the Sneeuberg Mountains lies the small town of Nieu Bethesda.Karoo is the name given by the Khoikhoi to the semi-desert plateau located in the southeastern region of the Cape Province. On the outskirts of the town stands a house that is decorated in saturated colours and figures shaped in concrete and glass. It is called the The Owl House and was created by the ascetic artist Helen Martins who was born in Nieu Bethesda around the turn of the nineteenth century. As a young woman Helen Martins left Nieu Bethesda, became a teacher, was married for a while and returned to her home town in the late nineteen thirties to take care of her elderly parents. By 1945 both her parents had died. The shy Helen Martins, now in her late forties, felt secluded and alone. Rumour has it that, as she lay ill in bed one night, with the moon shining through her bedroom window and, feeling depressed by the monotony of her surroundings, she decided to change her living environment and recreate a fantasy world of colour and shapes to surround herself. Thus started a project that would take her many years to complete and would in time become known as The Owl House. About light. Entering The Owl House is like stepping into a huge jewellery box of rubies and emeralds, with patchy sunlight filtering through red, green and yellow glass panes. Some brightly painted windows, walls and ceilings are encrusted with ground glass, their luminous surfaces reflecting light that bathe the objects and pictures in different hues. There are small statues and sculptures, religious objects, lamps, Mona Lisas and sun symbols, all carefully staged in a theatrical interplay of light and shade, orchestrated and directed by Miss Helen, as she got to be known in those days of miracle and wonder. Concrete and glass. As the interior neared completion, Helen Martins began working closely with builder and itinerant sheep shearer, Koos Malgas, on creating a physical landscape of her imagination. Her dreams and fantasies were derived from her readings of the Bible, as well as philosophical works of William Blake and the poetry of Omar Khayyam. Making use of humble materials such as glass, cement and wire, she worked closely with Malgas to create a wonderful collection of delicately sculptured, bottle-skirted ladies and chaps in hats and caps, figures bending backwards as if in exultation, a menagerie of vigilant owls, a cat with car headlights for eyes, shepherds and camels carrying wise men towards the Orient, on the road to Mecca. THE OWL HOUSE

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