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The owl house

February 11, 2010

In the tiny town of Neue Bethesda on the edge of the Karoo in South Africa there is a time capsule of a museum, The Owl House, freezing the moment in space/time when Helen Martins died.  The story of “Miss Helen” is bitter sweet.  She suffered from depression and found a way to cope with it by filling the space of her home with color and light.  Out of old bottles and the crushed glass and out of cement and out of the discarded and banal objects of everyday life, “Miss Helen’ created an amazing and visionary sculptural world.  The courtyard of the little house in which she lived is packed with hundreds of beautiful sculptures and inside the house light bounces on the glittery surfaces covered in crushed colored glass.  There are some recurring themes throughout the decorations: lots of smiling Mona Lisas, many biblical scenes, and above all the owls that give the house its name.

Though she did do work herself (I remember hearing how her hands became ribbons of sliced up flesh after crushing so much glass in her old coffee grinder), she had most of the heavy sculptural work done by others.  Her most prolific collaborator was Koos Malgas who she employed to build many of the outside sculptures and who took her ideas and sketches and literally made them concrete.  When Ms Helen committed suicide Koos was devastated: he later returned to the house to restore their work when the building became a museum.

Some years ago when I was visiting my mom in Cape Town the two of us took a road trip, or perhaps it was more a pilgrimage, to see the amazing environment created by Helen Martins.    I consider myself so lucky to have visited this beautiful place.  I hope that these photographs will give you some sense of it all: and if you ever find yourself in the Cape, please, try to visit The Owl House.

-by Talia

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2010 10:01 pm

    This is fascinating, and so sad. The interiors on the link look so cheerful and saturated it’s difficult to know of such a sad soul living there. I’d love to see Cape Town someday, and if I ever get the chance, will certainly visit The Owl House.

    • February 12, 2010 9:22 am

      I’m glad you had a look at the photos on the link: I didn’t have enough photos for a really good feel for the place. & I hope you do get to Cape Town some day: you’d really enjoy it.

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