Thursday, 24 June 2010

Who was Helen Martins?

It’s the late 1920s – between the World Wars – and you’re an educated woman in her early 30s who’s worked as a teacher in what was then the Transvaal (now Gauteng, South Africa), far from the place of your birth.

Your parents are in their 70s and frail, and as the only unmarried sibling (there were 10 of you but four died in infancy so now there are six; and you have been married but without success), it falls to you to return to where you began, and nurse the Elders through their dotage.

The place of your birth happens to be Nieu-Bethesda, a tiny farming village deep in the Karoo. It’s over a day’s trip to the nearest ‘big’ town, Graaff-Reinet – the only way to get there is by donkey cart, up and out of a deep valley and across what must have seemed an endless plain.

You’ve also lived in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, and travelled in the USA and Europe (with your husband, who has since absconded), and worked as a waitress and a chemist-shop assistant (among other things), so you’ve had a taste of a more sophisticated life than that offered by the tiny community of very conservative farmers and tradesmen, and their wives and families, that are the core of the white population of Nieu-Bethesda – but what can you do?

Your mother, long an invalid, finally expires twenty years later; your father (a cantankerous old bastard) takes another four years to shuffle off.

You’re now in your 50s. It’s too late to re-enter the world – 20 years of hermit-like existence, with only your decrepit Elders for company, have eroded your courage (of which you once had plenty). Your parents have left you their very modest Karoo house but little else – a state grant is your sole source of income. Your siblings (with the exception of one, a sister) think you’re batty and have little patience with your impatience with your tiny world.

You are fit and strong, and fiercely intelligent, but by now the villagers are thinking you’re markedly eccentric, and the deep valley in which you live is closing in on you. The sharp-edged, washed-out colours of the Karoo summers, and the bitterly cold winters, are leeching the brightness from your world. Your horizons have become frighteningly narrow.

What do you do?

If you’re Helen Martins, you use the materials at your disposal – cement, wire and coloured glass – to transform your dull and limited reality into a world you feel you can inhabit, one defined by symbolism, light and colour. You make your own paradise.

It begins in the little three-bedroomed Karoo house in which you’ve spent so much of your life. Grinding bottles of different colours into glass granules, you use these to transform the walls of your house into a jewel box which, when lit by the morning or evening sun, or, at night, by lamps and candles (there will be no electricity in the town until after your death), glitters and shimmers.

In the meantime, you’ve begun an intense relationship with a married man (who, interestingly, after being struck not once but twice by lightning, has decided to move his family to this remote Karoo village – perhaps in the hope that the very deepness of the valley will keep the searching fingers of electricity at bay). He has remodelled himself as a builder, and he helps you knock out some of the house’s interior walls and replace them with glass panels in red, green and yellow. These catch the sunlight and bounce it, via carefully placed mirrors, through the house.

Once every single millimetre of the entire interior of the house has been completely transformed, and you’ve embellished the jewel-box feeling of it with a multitude of mirrors (many in the shapes of moons and stars), hundreds of figurines, illustrations from framed Mona Lisas (an icon with which you closely identify, and which appears in various forms throughout the house) to family photographs and picture-postcards, and blankets tacked to walls and bright clothing hung on pegs – you move outside.

Here, until you die about 20 years later, you build a remarkable installation. You do this with very little reference to the outside world and with no contact whatsoever with other artists (your work will come to be recognised as ‘Outsider Art’). With the help of a local odd-job man, Koos Malgas, you fill your small garden with over 300 cement/wire/glass sculptures, differing in size and construction from delicately small to monumental, creating tableaux from the Bible and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (among others), and incorporating a vast array of owls and other creatures. You call your creation The Owl House. (While you are alive, this space is also filled with plants, fish and living birds.)

Your close working relationship with Koos is regarded with suspicion by the villagers (this is, after all, Apartheid South Africa – and you live in a super-conservative community), and it doesn’t help that you’re secretive about what you’re doing – you regard The Owl House as a place apart, and you’re prickly about visitors. You become ever more isolated, and your siblings grow tremendously impatient with you when they learn that the money they send you for food is being ‘squandered’ on the supplies you need to feed your vision. Their annoyance knows no bounds, for instance, when they learn that you’ve removed the kitchen range to replace it with an owl tableau backed by bright-red coloured glass. Where in heaven’s name are you going to prepare food?

Twenty-five years after you began it, your vision is nearing completion. Which is just as well, as you’re now in your 70s and suffering from a range of age-related complaints, as well as some stemming directly from your frugal lifestyle and the unforgiving materials with which you work passionately every day – cement, wire and ground glass. Much more tragic, however, is that your eyesight is failing – and without the ability to see it, your Camel Yard garden and Jewel Box house, with their multitude of figurines and symbolic sculptures, are as dust.

You tell Koos what you’re going to do, then you do it. This is no cry for help: it is a genuine suicide. You drink caustic soda, and you take three days to die in a hospital in Graaff-Reinet.

More about Helen Martins, the Owl House and Nieu-Bethesda to come in following posts.

• Thanks to Katrin and Ian at The Karoo Lamb for accommodating Tanya and me on our Karoo sojourn.

Pictures, from the top

* Helen Martins as a young woman.

* Helen’s only sculptural rendition of herself. We know it’s her because the figurine has only four toes on each foot – Helen had her baby toes amputated as a result of painful bunions. Here, she sits in the camel train (my favourite tableau) and reaches up to her personally designated (but not directionally accurate) East/Oos.

* The canisters of ground glass, graded by colour and size, that Helen kept in her pantry (where other people kept food).

* Helen dressed simply and lived frugally, but she hung these luxurious garments on pegs in her front hall – she wanted to create a feeling of opulence and abundance in her home.

* One of the three bedrooms in the house.

* This owl and her baby guard the entrance from the house to the Camel Yard.

* Helen’s sister was the inspiration for this supine figure; next to it is one of the many tableaux inspired by the Rubaiyat: ‘A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness – and wilderness is paradise now.’ The Owl House and Camel Yard were Helen’s own paradise.

* These life-size women with their bottle skirts and ground-glasses bodices are two of three that welcome you to Helen’s garden - although, ironically, not many people were permitted entry while she was alive; now, 18 000 people a year make the pilgrimage to this remote town to experience Helen's unique vision.

* This is Helen’s memorial stone in the local cemetery. Its simplicity stands in stark relief against the more sophisticated headstones that surround it. Helen was apart in his fascinating little place, even in death.

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kyllikki said...

What a fantastic person she was!

Anonymous said...

Good day, I was researching Helen Martins and her work and found your blog. You seemed to have stopped blogging in 2012. What a pity! I ask permission to use some of the photographs on this blog please. I aim to do an artwork together with text for an artist book 63cm x 15cm, accordian type, to exchange with Cheryl Penn, site

My site is

Regards. Petru Viljoen

Tracey said...

Hi Petru. Yes, please do go ahead and use the pics. My new blog is at