It was something of a shock to see Aunt Helen’s leap to fame after her suicide in 1975, and to see the excitement in art circles over her work.
First Published in June 1986 in Women Artists News.
Updated & Published in January 2003 in Atlanta's Aquarius
Helen Martins was born in South Africa in 1897 and spent most of her 78 years in the small village of Nieu Bethesda in the Cape’s Great Karroo Desert. She was not acknowledged as an artist in her lifetime. She didn’t begin her work until she was 50 years old and she didn’t think of herself as an artist.
Family, friends and neighbors thought she was an “incorrigible eccentric” or worse. Yet today she is acclaimed as a genius. The town has bought her house and works and there is a play and a film on her life. Her achievement is compared to Antonio Gaudi’s fantastic architecture in Barcelona and to Simon Rodes’ Watts Towers.
Although I never met my great Aunt Helen, I’ve heard about her as long as I can remember. The overwhelming sentiment of the family was exasperation, as when grandmother discovered that money sent her sister for food and clothes went to material to make more of those “ghastly statues.”
She had been a grade school teacher. She married a young diplomat named Pienaar and traveled through Europe and the US with him for a year before their marriage broke apart. Returning to her “beloved Karroo,” after her mother’s death, she nursed her ailing, bigoted father until he died. Then she painted his room black and engraved “The Lion’s Den” on the step.
After that Helen lived in solitude simply to create. Tapping an inner stream of creative vision, without external stimulation from conventional art and cultural centers, her genius “flowered undaunted by environment.” She held no exhibitions, rarely admitted visitors into her sanctuary, and was, in fact, astonished and embarrassed when anyone showed an interest in her work. Since she did not go to church and had little interest in earthly comforts, the strictly Calvinist community she lived in considered her “ungodly,” although the work is obviously that of a deeply religious person.
What she did was apply cement plaster to wire from which she then painted or covered with colored glass. In her garden she constructed more than 200 camels, owls, peacocks, Bushmen, Biblical characters, and Buddhas.
Fantastic, visionary, almost life-sized, they assembled in and around the house like a gigantic army. Figures from a nativity scene, figures from folk tales, animated poetry, single goddesses—house and garden were transformed into a personal universe. Walls, windows, doors and tables were covered with mirrors and lanterns, becoming an aviary for owls with headlight eyes. The Bible, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, the poetry of William Blake, Eastern religions and the heavenly bodies were inspiration.
South African writer David Bristow, who studied Helen Martin’s life and work, documented the change from her early crude work to a “technically and artistically superb style.” He described this as “the naïveté and freshness of a child coupled with the consciousness of an artist…a spiritual…transcending vision coupled with creative drive” saying that it marked her as “one of South Africa’s true artistic geniuses.”
Critics describing Martin’s work quote Jean Dubuffet’s definition of “art brut”: originality and rugged individualism thriving in places other than those socially assigned to “the fine arts” and largely untouched by cultural influences. Another South African art authority, Esme Berman, said the house, now called “Owl House,” looks “spectacular,” and is important both as art and folk culture. South African art critic Robert Brooks said it provided one of the most stirring experiences of his life, “like Gaudi.” Playwright Anthony Fugard wrote “The Road to Mecca” inspired by Helen’s life and work. He describes the collective impact of the work as captivating, a “stream of consciousness in concrete.”
Anne Emslie and Sue Imrie Ross, two South African art scholars and authors made Helen’s life and work the subject of their doctoral thesis. Emslie’s books “the Owl House” and “A Journey Through the Owl House” and Ross’s book “This Is My World” are illuminating with stunning color photographs. Ross’ book was published a year after her untimely death from lung cancer in 1996.
In 1975, her home and garden were filled with work, and Helen seemed to feel her life’s purpose was complete. She committed suicide. She drank caustic soda and died after three days in solitary agony. Her will included complex instructions listing in detail the ritual disposal of each of her sculptures. But today the Owl House, nestled at the foot of the Kompasberg Mountains, has been proclaimed a national monument, and is one of the finest examples of Outsider Art in the world. Each year up to 12,000 people from around the globe make a pilgrimage to the Owl House and Camel Yard. Those that have visited Helen’s home cannot but be deeply touched by the enchanted world she created.