Often mentioned in the same breath as Nieu Bethesda, the Owl House is one of the primary reasons why visitors stray off the N9 National Road past the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet. At a glance, the shuttered home might appear like many others in the region, but then you notice the arch leading into the Camel Yard, and the many cement owls with glass bottle eyes that hold vigil on the boundary.
Weird to some, wonderful to others, the Owl House is a work of outsider art created by Helen Martins between 1945 and 1976. Driven to despair by the dullness of her daily life, she took steps to transform her world with light, colour and texture.
Miss Helen, as she was known by many, was a retiring figure in the village, who employed local labourers, most notably Koos Malgas, to help her construct her Camel Yard which she filled with its many sculptures of bottle-skirted hostesses, mermaids, camels and pilgrims, all journeying to a mystical east.
Miss Helen’s imagination transformed humble materials such as cement, glass, mirrors and wire into a secret, magical world that she shared with few, drawing upon Bible stories, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Orient, and everyday objects – all of which blended to create a personal cosmology.
Her Owl House touched the lives of many while she was alive, even inspiring the playwright Athol Fugard to pen the much-loved play, The Road to Mecca, which was later made into a film.
During the 12 years that she actively worked, Miss Helen created hundreds of sculptures. She painted the interior walls of her home in bright colours which were then overlaid with a layer of crushed glass. Vibrant colour and light spoke to Helen on a fundamental level, and the Owl House came alive at night, when candle and lamp light reflected off the many mirrors that she had cut specifically for her home.
Today, the Owl House Foundation is the custodian of Miss Helen’s vision, and it is through the foundation’s efforts that the magic of the Owl House can touch many more lives.
The Owl House’s operating hours are 09h00 to 16h45, Monday to Sunday; December school holidays, 08h00 to 17h45; and closed on December 25.
Tickets may be purchased at the visitors’ centre entrance in Martin Street, and cost R50 for the Owl House only, and R70 for the Owl House and Kitching Fossil Centre.
Call 049 841 1733 for further information.