I’m always fascinated when you can see someone’s personality reflected in a building they have created: from Gaudi’s obsession with detail in La Sagrada Familia to Gehry’s love of space at the Guggenheim. And if ever a building reflected its owner it is Helen Martin’s Owl House. Based in the village of Nieu Bethseda in the Karoo, the artist’s former home has been turned into a museum to showcase her lifetime’s work.
The Karoo was one of the stops on our South African roadtrip and it was an area I loved. The open plains, the huge rock formations and the mountains which go on and on are amazingly beautiful, but can also feel quite desolate at times. A comparison it would be easy to make about the Owl House. After returning to her family home, Martins dedicated the latter part of her life to transforming it with colour and light. She wanted to make things beautiful and filled her garden with countless concrete and glass sculptures. However, despite the beauty she surrounded herself with; over the years Martins gradually became a recluse and eventually ended up taking her own life.
Now open to the public, the house evokes mixed emotions. The fantasy garden is completely full of sculptures of all shapes and sizes. Some of them are playful, like the ladies whose dresses are made from glass bottles; some are symbolic like the men trying to hold back time and some just have an overwhelming feeling of sadness to them, like the man holding his head in his hands.
While it’s impossible to fail to be impressed by the sheer scale of the project and Martins’ commitment to it, the garden also has an eerie feel to it. A gateway which was originally intended to open out onto the street had been fenced up by Martins and cacti had been planted in front of it. It was sad to see that a place which had been created to show light and beauty to the world ended up becoming so closed off from it.
Inside the house every single wall is covered with tiny pieces of ground glass. Stained glass windows throw different colours around the rooms and mirrors catch the light. There are collectables everywhere. Every surface is filled with lamps, vases, plates and dishes. But despite all of the “stuff” there is a feeling of calm throughout. Walking through the rooms feels like a startlingly intimate view into someone’s private life.
I hope that it would have made Miss Helen happy to know that, after all of these years, her original intention to bring beauty and light to people lives on. Because, after all, this was her world…