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ode to helen

upon return from nieu bethesda

In the latter half of her life, Helen Martins (1898 - 1976) transformed her cottage in the Karoo into a fantasy world she named `the owl house’. Her creation is one of South Africa’s foremost examples of outsider art and was declared a national monument in 1989. Fascinated by light and its refraction, her multicoloured walls are encrusted with glittering crushed glass decorated with lamps, mirrors, stars and moons. The surrounding plot of land is filled with around 520 cement sculptures created by Helen together with the men she employed from the village (most notably Koos Malgas). Pilgrims and camels face an imagined East alongside owls, mermaids, peacocks, mythical figures and places of worship. The inside fences surrounding the camel yard are covered in wire-bent phrases from Omar Khayyam’s writings as well as her own encapsulating words:

‘this is my world’

At the age of 78 after thirty years of artistic work, Helen took her own life by drinking caustic soda.


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