The Owl House at Nieu Bethesda
by Diana Studer
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(If you mouse over teal blue text, it turns seaweed red.
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