Helen Martins’ Owl House
Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa
Helen Martins (1897-1976) spent a number of years teaching and traveling with her husband. Following their divorce in 1926, she returned to her childhood home to care for her parents. Shortly after her father’s death in 1945, Martins began to cover almost every surface in her childhood home with crushed glass and mirror. According to stories, she was struck by how much dullness was in her life and decided she wanted to add color and light.
Martins worked on The Owl House from 1945-1976 and hired Koos Malgas, a local sheep shearer, to create the more than 300 concrete sculptures that cover the lawn and garden, referred to as The Camel Yard. Her inspirations included Biblical texts as well as poets Wiliam Blake and Omar Khayyam. She also had a fascination with the holy city of Mecca, which is why all her sculptures face east. Martins’ use of crushed glass eventually led to blindness and she died by suicide shortly after becoming blind at the age of 78.
Martins’ life and work inspired playwright Athol Fugard to write “The Road to Mecca,” a play which was later made into a film. Malgas helped with preservation of the site from 1991 until his death in 2000. The site remains open to the public as a museum according to Martins’ wishes.
Helen Martins’ name can be found outside in the sculpture garden at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
Biography and photos
Video Miss Helen’s Owl House by the Ibis Art Centre for owl house foundation (7 minutes; 2001)
Book This Is My World: The Life of Helen Martins, Creator of the Owl House by Sue Imrie Ross and Helen Elizabeth Martins (1997)
Button & Top Photo Credit: Artsy.com