Nieu Bethesda is a tiny Karoo ‘dorpie’ where the energy is so thick it makes your lungs and heart feel sludgy. It is also home to The Owl House, made famous by Helen Martins. “Legend states that one night when Helen was lying in bed contemplating the moon shining in through her window, she realised how dull and grey her life had become and resolved in that moment to bring light and colour into her world”.

It’s a magical world of sadness,pain, passion and triumph over small minded living. I’ve visited The Owl House numerous times, but not for many years, and its allure always calls me back. We took the route less traveled, from the N9 – The Owl Route. Arrived after a slippery dirt road route into a town untouched by time. You can enter the normal way, from a tarred road, but why would we do that?

The Owl House was created by Helen and her companion Koos Malgas. Stone statues cover the outside Camel Yard, inspired by biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and the works of William Blake. Inside huge crushed glass suns adorn the ceilings and walls, and owls stare at you from every corner. Helen used to sleep in different rooms to embrace the light from different angles in her house. The outside room, a room painted in all black was her fathers room. Their relationship was troublesome and unhappy, and after his death, she blocked up the windows, painted it all black and labelled it the “Lions Den.” As you enter the Owl House today, the steps leading into the Camel Yard take you through the Lion’s Den. It’s eerie and filled with buzzing energy.

The most terrifying and beautiful piece in the house is a strange figure lying next to her bed. Excerpts taken from online research show Helen was terrified of having children, “fearing that they would be born with cloven hooves. She had at least one abortion in her lifetime, but could have had more. The only piece Helen made with her own hands is a literal reference to this fear… a stuffed buckskin bag from which protrudes one human leg and one buck hoof”.

Tormented by her impending old age, her failing eye sight and the limitations her age was putting on her ability to live life to the fullest, Helen Martins drank a mixture of crushed glass and caustic soda at her home and ended her own life.

The Owl House is not everyone’s idea of a day trip. There’s a deep sadness mixed with hints of madness that can often confuse itself with darkness. You can still feel Helen in the house and imagine what her life would’ve been like in the isolated Karoo of the 1940’s. A phenomenal woman, artist and visionary, with a life and imagination too big for what was afforded her.

“Dying isn’t the problem. Living is the problem. That is why we must live our lives passionately and to the full. My agony would be to “live dying” without being able to work.”
Helen Martins

Words / Images – Joanne Olivier