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Helen Martins and the Owl House
Frequently Asked Questions by Egbert Gerryts
(Copyright: Egbert Gerryts, 1995)
“The house belonged to her parents. She grew up here and, apart from several years during which she studied, worked, married and eventually got divorced, she had lived there all her life. It is difficult to determine the exact number of years she spent away from Nieu Bethesda, but it was a period of five to ten years.”
“Yes, twice. The first time was to Willem Johannes Pienaar, whom she married on 7 January 1920. He was a fellow teacher and grew up in the village. The marriage lasted six years. She travelled extensively throughout the country with WJ Pienaar as part of a touring theatre group. They were formally divorced in 1926.”
She married for the second time at the age of 54, this time to a Johannes Machiel Niemand, a widower. They were married on 4 July 1952 and they were formally divorced on 21 May 1953. Some say Helen only married Niemand as she was feeling sorry for him. It is said that they never even moved into the same house after the wedding.
The answer to this, according to Gerryts, is that this would depend on your definition of the word “mad”.
“There seems to have been a compulsiveness about her world, but I know businessmen, athletes and researchers with the same problems. She conceptualized some weird creatures, but so have other artists (Pippa Skotnes, Robert Slingsby and Alexis Preller would scare many innocents with some of their creations). One could argue that any artist are a bit mad, but then the original question loses its meaning.
“As she got older, Helen Martins became progressively reclusive. According to some she was paranoid of people during her last years. However, she maintained certain friendships and I have heard of strangers who were cordially received even during the last two years before her death.
“She did strange things, but anecdotes I have heard point more to eccentricity than craziness. Helen Martins was obviously ‘different’, but the difference was probably emphasized by the community in which she existed. I doubt if the idea of madness would have come up if she had lived in an artists’ community in a city.”
“Yes, at the age of 78 (on 5 August 1976) she took her own life by drinking caustic soda and died a few days later in Graaff-Reinet. I understand that she had mentioned this death wish from time to time before the act. And if this question is asked in connection with the previous question: No, I do not think the suicide indicates madness. It could indicate unhappiness, depression or hopelessness, but the most rational of people could be driven to suicide.”
“The most well-known answer is that she was going blind, although this has been disputed by locals who claim that she suffered from cataracts and that it could have been easily remedied with a small operation. Most, however, believe the original story that she was losing her sight and the darkness had driven her to act.
“The glass that she worked with for so many years damaged her eyes and eventually took away her sight. This lead to great depression and she felt that, not being able to continue her work, life was not worth living. I call it the ‘standard answer’ because it is very simplistic. Suicide is rather the individual’s solution to and escape from an accumulation of problems, frustrations, fear and pain, than a simple answer to one problem.”
No, but according to some sources she had two abortions during her first marriage. “According to the source, she told a friend that she was afraid that her children might be born with cloven hooves and horns. These abortions are also mentioned as the reason for her first husband divorcing her.”
This might not have been the only reason, however, as WJ Pienaar was known as a womanizer who had an affair with another young teacher during their time in Volksrust. He later married the teacher, Miss Wimble, who accompanied him to England, but he also allegedly cheated on her.
“With reference to the hooves and horns? I am not sure of the circumstances and in what tone of voice it was said. She might have been joking. Or she could have verbalized her fear of motherhood in this manner. Mental derangement only comes up if she really believed this bizarre possibility and it is impossible to know to what extent that was so. (What interests me here is the reason a doctor in the 1920’s would have found it acceptable for two abortions, but then I’m assuming it was performed by a medical practitioner, another thing we do not know.)”
“She wasn’t buried. She was cremated, and her ashes were eventually scattered in the Camel Yard.”
Read more about her last wishes here.
“If you listen to people today, she had many friends. Even if you query most of the claims to intimate friendship, I still get the impression that she had friendly relations with several people. And I do not get the impression that she was rejected by the community. If she was ostracized, it was by individuals and not the community.
“Many found her strange. Many children were apparently afraid of her, other pestered her by, for instance, knocking on her door and then running away, or throwing stones on her roof. There probably would have been those who regarded her as something like a witch. However, there were several who talked to her, helped her in practical matters, who sent her food and who even appreciated her creations.
“Strangely enough, there are many stories that portrayed her father as a difficult and weird person who often did strange things.”
(This is Gerryts’ own opinion of her work)
I have heard many people emphatically saying ‘YES’ and others just as emphatically saying ‘no’. Amongst both groups there are people who should know. I have walked through the house and amongst the statues, many times and I never tired of it. I also always find myself moved and fascinated.
“People from all over the world visit the Owl House and many return after their first visit. Visitors are disturbed, overwhelmed, saddened, angered or inspired after having been there. Some of the varied reactions I have heard:
- She was unique
- She must have been crazy
- She certainly was different.
- What does it all mean?
- I feel totally disorientated. I don’t know what’s going on.
- It is creepy.
- It is wonderful.
- I know just how she felt.
- That’s now a lot of nonsense, but at least I can say now that I have seen the Owl House.
- I can’t go in there again. There is too much pain… too much loneliness.
“Some see joy and exhilaration. Others recoil from the front door, overwhelmed by the pain, suffering and lonely anguish that they sense there. A few wonders what the ado is all about.
“At the time of her death, Helen Martins was virtually unknown. Fifteen years after her death more than 5000 people from all over the world visit her house annually. (Today between 12 000 and 15000 people visit the Owl House every year.) I may not always have total faith in the connoisseurs of art, but so much reaction by so many people have convinced me that Helen Martins created something that communicates to people on a significant level and I believe that is an essential element of art.”
Click here to read more about Outsider Art and Helen Martins’ contribution to the art form.
I understand that none of the statues were made by her. Is that correct?
“According to Koos Malgas, one of her three helpers over the years, she didn’t make anything during the 12 years he worked for her. He describes their working together as her being the creative spirit and he the hands. There definitely seems to be a difference in styles in work done during his time with her compared to the years before that.
“I have also heard from an elderly lady from the area hotly disputing this statement by Koos saying that she personally saw Helen also making statues.”
“I believe that Koos’s own view of their relationship, as quoted above, answers the question. In the years following Helen’s death (Koos passed away in 2000), Koos showed little interest in making original statues. Apparently, he finds fulfilment in making replicas of statues conceptualized by Helen Martins.”
Read more about Helen Martins’ last will here.
“I asked Koos about it and he gave me the following facts: He found her after she had taken the poison. She could not talk and indicated to him that she needed paper to write on. He found her some and she wrote him a letter and, because he couldn’t read, he gave it to the minister to read. They were all busy getting Helen wrapped up to take her to the hospital. The minster read the letter and after his wife had also read it, put it into his pocket. Whether he just forgot about it or deliberately kept it from Koos, or just didn’t consider it as important, will probably never be known. Koos himself disclaims any knowledge of money or inheritance being involved.
“It is unlikely that Helen had any money to leave. If it hadn’t been for some of the townspeople who sent her food, she would have lived on tea and bread.”
“Although he used the person and the setting and many aspects that was really part of her life, Athol Fugard’s purpose was not to write her life story. In a talk delivered at Rhodes University in 1991 he actually said: ‘It is not a biographical play about the real Helen Martins. The Miss Helen in the Road to Mecca is in fact a self-portrait…’”
“In the garden you find a collection of more than 300 statues including owls, camels (with and without wise men), a collection of giraffe heads on necks, without their bodies, suns, fish, lambs, shepherds, a lion, peacocks, ibis, mermaids, snakes, cranes, kiwis, dogs, a cat, a small singing bird, Buddha, Mona Lisa reliefs against the walls, Adam and Eve, a nativity scene, churches, sphinxes and more.
“This is one way to say that I do not know the answer to the question. I doubt if she was consciously trying to say something on a grand scale. There are several tableaus of individual figures making statements about life, time, human relations, etc. I enjoy just walking around and experiencing without trying to understand.”
Anne Graaff wrote two books focusing on the possible themes in the Camel Yard. The books are available from the Owl House Gift Shop.
Note by the author: “I obtained all of the information used in this Q&A by talking to people and reading books and articles. In many cases information received on a certain aspect differed from source to source, in a few cases quite radically. In such cases I gave the answers that seemed the closest to the truth. I never had any contact with Helen Martins and therefore cannot talk of firsthand information concerning anything to which only she could have given answers.
Note by the editor: Egbert Gerryts has passed away since compiling this list. He was a well-known character and resident in the village and has spent a lot of time researching Helen Martins and the Owl House, especially talking to Koos Malgas about his experiences. The above answers have been updated with the most recent available information.