Outer appearances can be deceiving. In life, Helen Elizabeth Martins was a shy, retiring figure, rarely seen outside on the streets of Nieu Bethesda. But this recluse was the custodian of a magical inner kingdom that she breathed into life.
Born in Nieu Bethesda on December 23, 1897, Helen was the youngest of six children, and her early years gave little indication of what the future would hold. She finished her schooling in Graaff-Reinet with a teaching diploma then married Johannes Pienaar, who was a teacher and dramatist.
Their marriage was not a happy one, and after seeing parts of the country, Helen returned to Nieu Bethesda in 1928 so that she could care for her frail parents. Her mother passed away in 1941; her father in 1945. Helen’s relationship with her father was troubled and she had moved him into an outside room later named The Lion’s Den, its walls painted black.
It was only once she was on her own, that she 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.
Outsider art, sometimes referred to as naïve art, covers a broad range of media, incorporating everything from photography, painting and illustration, to larger-scale works involving sculpture, the decoration of homes and landscaping of outdoor environments. The term outsider art, which was coined by the art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972, is often used synonymously with that of folk art, and art brut, but there is a difference.
Whereas folk art is often associated with a particular cultural group, and art brut with the works created by juveniles or those who are institutionalised, outsider art refers to the often controversial works created by dedicated, if not obsessive artists, who are untrained, and who have not been influenced by any schools, galleries or museums.
The hallmarks of outsider artists often involve spontaneity, influenced by the world around them, and often involving the incorporation of found materials, such as broken ceramics, glass, wire and cement. The execution of the works often include a high degree of stylisation of form, and an unconventional conceptualisation of theme and application of media. Outsider artists are mostly self-taught individuals, who in many instances often remain obscure until their deaths.
Apart from Helen Martins’ Owl House, another example of South African outsider art includes Nukain Mabuza’s rock paintings on a farm in Revolver Creek near Barberton, Mpumalanga. Examples from further afield include Buddha Park in Laos; the illustrations of Henry Darger; Watts Towers in Los Angeles, California; Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India; and Le Palais Idéal in Hauterives, France, among many others.