After the death of her parents, Helen Martins sought to transform her home, as a reflection of her quest to bring wonder, magic and light into her existence. Her passion for and involvement in her work was to the detriment of her own health, which may have contributed to her increased reticence to being seen in public.
At 78, crippled by arthritis and suffering increased loss of vision – the latter possibly damage caused through her working with ground glass – Helen took her own life by drinking a mixture containing caustic soda.
Her fear of being separated from her beloved Owl House was so great that she would rather end her life than be removed to live elsewhere. Miss Helen was rushed to hospital in Graaff-Reinet, where she died three days later, on August 8, 1976, though her legacy continues to bring joy and wonder to many who visit her home.
The inside of the house is alive with colour. Ground glass decorates the walls, reflecting light, causing the whole house to be lighter. The house includes an entrance hall, three bedrooms, a dining room, living room, pantry and kitchen. The outside room, “The Lion’s Den”, where her father was said to have moved in in later years is accessed through the garden and also serves at the current entry to the Owl House.
There are a number of interesting facets to look out for in each room.
Most of the walls inside the house are covered with different coloured glass. The men who worked with her remarked that she loved anything shiny and tried to bring light into her world by grinding glass through a coffee mill and fixing them onto the walls with varnish and paint.
Visitors now enter through the kitchen, a cluttered room where the oven had long since been disposed of. It was said that Miss Helen spent most of her money on cement for her sculptures, neglecting to buy food and lived off tea, rusks and bread. Worried neighbours, including Sister Rina Retief who lived next door, would send over food, while Yvonne du Plessis remembers Helen visiting her Aunt Lettie Kritzinger’s house on a regular basis. She would then have supper and sleep over, before skulking back to the Owl House in the morning shadows.
The kitchen has wide open windows, overlooking the Camel Yard, similar to that in the dining room. It was supposedly put in after her father’s death in 1945 as part of her changing of her environment.
Look out for: The enormous sun on the ceiling, one of many throughout the house. It is said to have been inspired by the Sunbeam polish can – also still in the kitchen. The table it held up by six kudu horns and was built by Piet van der Merwe, one of her first employees.