Thursday 14 August 2008

Visionary Environment – Helen Martins and The Owl House of Nieu Bethesda

“On a cold winters' morning in 1976, at the age of seventy-eight, Helen Martins took her own life by swallowing caustic soda.” (From the biography of Helen Martins on the official Owl House Foundation site

So ended the tragic yet somehow beautiful life of a colourful character whose artistic vision and psychological depth went mostly unnoticed by her neighbours in the dusty, out-of-the-way Great Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda.

Helen Martins, who went on to create the fantastical sculptures and decorations of the Owl House, was born in 1897, the youngest of six children born to “Oom” (Uncle) Piet Martins and his wife.

Nieu Bethesda is a small village in the Great Karoo, founded by the Rev. Andrew Murray, in a valley of the Sneeuberge (Snow Mountains), in1875. It lies in the shadow of the Compassberg, which, at 2 540 metres, is the highest mountain in the Eastern Cape.

My former wife Joan and I visited there in October 1999 and were entranced, as are so many others, by the Owl House. The spirit of Helen Martins is almost palpable in the house and its fantastical garden.

The small house is full of colour and shimmer from the ground-glass wall covering and the large panes of coloured glass in the windows. The interior was where Miss Helen, as she was known, started the transformation of her modest home back in the late 40s or early 50s. For this stage of the transformation of the house she used two local workmen to enlarge windows and help with the painting and installation of the ground glass wall coverings.

The garden is crowded with camels and owls and people of all kinds, many with skirts of coloured glass bottles, most of them facing East.

According to the official website of the Owl House Museum the number of visitors to this fascinating place has reached more than 15 000 annually. This begs the question, Why? What is it that people look for there? What draws them to this rather strange place in a very out-of-the-way corner of South Africa, far from the beaten track, far from any glitz or glitter?

The house itself is small and architecturally nondescript. And yet more than 1000 people visit it each month on average. Though I must admit the day we were there we were the only visitors, so I’m not sure when these 1000 people visit. Maybe in holiday seasons. We visited in a very low season.

Nieu Bethesda itself is a really beautiful place, calm and peaceful to the point of somnolence. And like so many such places full of stories and legends.

One of the most potent of these is the story of Miss Helen and her Owl House. Is the house the beginning or the end of her “Road to Mecca”? Is her garden of wonders and delights a happy or a sad place?

For the people of Nieu-Bethesda it was in her lifetime a place of mystery and fear, a place which loudly disturbed the Calvinist calm and quiet of their town with its Christian symbols facing the Muslim Mecca, with its brooding sexual questioning. Even her relationship with the workman Koos Malgas became an affront to the burghers’ sensitivities in the depth of apartheid South Africa.

Athol Fugard’s moving play “The Road to Mecca” is about this confrontation between the repression of convention, symbolised by the character Marius Beyleveldt, and the defiance of the visionary, embodied by Miss Helen.

It is tempting to see in Miss Helen’s outpouring of creations, her obsessive covering of the walls of her house, evidence of sickness, of a diseased mind, as in what has become known as “outsider art” or , in Jean Dubuffet’s term, “Art Brut”. This kind of art has become well known and widely studied and certainly there are similarities with Miss Helen’s creations.

Dubuffet wrote about Art Brut that it was created without reference to “worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion” and was largely self-taught. Miss Helen certainly created from what Dubuffet called “solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses”, but she was at the same time, perhaps paradoxically, concerned for the preservation of her creations, and was concerned to some extent about their acceptance by others. She wanted, according to the Owl House Museum website, to be recognised as an artist.

One of the most famous “outsider” artists is the Swiss asylum inmate Adolf Wofli, who also wanted to be recognised as an artist. His output of drawings shows he had what is termed a “horror vacui”, a fear of empty spaces, and so his many drawings are obsessively covered with no white spaces left. Was there a similar fear at work in Miss Helen? I would suspect so, though I would not imagine her to be mad, as Wolfli undoubtedly was.

What she undoubtedly was, was a sign of contradiction in an era and place of conformity. Graeme Revell, who has studied the music that Wofli composed, has written that Wolfli’s music brings us to “The realisation also that our aesthetic sensibility is constrained by our limited perceptual ability.” In other words, what we see (or hear) is limited by what we are able, as culturally determined, to see (or hear).

Which brings us back to the question of what people come to the Owl House wanting or expecting to see? Is it a morbid fascination with or expectations of seeing symptoms of a sick mind? Is it the attraction of the merely picaresque? Or is there some sense of coming into contact with something deeper. Some deep connection with the origins of human creativity, perhaps?

Dubuffet on outsider art again: “After a certain familiarity with these flourishing of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade."

However I would not characterise the Owl House as “outsider art” but rather as a “visionary environment” as in the following definition: “Visionary environments ("fantasy worlds") are extensive/large-scale artistic installations (buildings, sculpture parks, etc) intended to capture intense subjective/personal experiences (dreams, fantasies, obsessions, etc) of their creators. The subjective/personal nature of these projects often implies a marginal status for the artists involved, and there is a strong association between visionary environments and outsider art.” (Wikipedia - accessed 140808).

What l was left with at the end of our visit was a somewhat wistful feeling, a feeling that Miss Helen haad been trying to communicate something very deep, very powerful to anyone who would visit her house, but somehow that something was at once so fleeting and so obscure that to grasp it might destroy it, that in the looking at it too deeply its meaning might be lost. The feeling was something like what Wolfli wrote towards the end of his life: “Some day again – in the dark wind – sweet childlike innocence will come.”

Perhaps that is what the owl house provokes, a sense of childlike wonder and curiosity, something will-o-the-wispish, playful yet sad, fleeting and profound, that evokes in people a nostalgia for what can never be. A paradoxical coming together of darkness and innocence, symbolised by the ethereal quality of the constructions in the Camel Yard, made of such earthly and commonplace materials yet pointing to something far other.


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