Owl House Studios: An animation studio inspired by Helen Martins

This video was created by Jessica Cope, an animator and animation director. She created a short animated film titled The Owl House as part of her degree. The story is based on her visit to Helen Martins’ Owl House, inspired by the feeling her visit left her. She also started an animation studio named Owl House Studios.

Watch the film here:

The Owl House from Jessica Cope on Vimeo.

More about Jessica

Jessica Cope (33) lives in the United Kingdom where she works as an animator and animation director. “The very first film I made was at University and it was my final degree project called The Owl House. To my surprise I got a 1st for the project and was awarded the Helen Rose Bequest Award!

“This is also where my animation journey began. I mainly work on animated music videos, but before that, I worked on Tim Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie’ and ‘Postman Pat’. It seems that I have now caught the interest of a lot of progressive rock artists. My work is considered quite melancholy and dark so I guess this is why I am approached to work on projects that usually have quite sad narratives.”

Although Jessica now lives and works in the UK, she grew up in Johannesburg and lived in South Africa for 14 years before moving. “I absolutely loved living in South Africa and wish I was still there. I currently live in a small town in North Yorkshire, called Harrogate. Ironically it is considered the happiest place in the whole of the UK! It also seems to be the best place to live in my line of work at the moment.”

Visiting the Owl House

Jessica doesn’t recall the exact date of her visit to the Owl House, but she figured it had to be around the age of nine. “We were passing by and my mom had a little book of things to do so my sibling and I don’t get too bored on the long drive to our destination.

“We stopped in Nieu Bethesda and visited the Owl House. I remember the feeling I had as I walked around Helen’s house. It was beautiful, yet very sad and it had a very creepy feeling to it as well.

“I was amazed by the sculptures and the crushed glass painted on the walls. Even at the age of 9 I could tell that this house had a lot of history and was also hiding something very sad. It was not until I was at university, 12 years later, when my dad told me the full story about Helen. My memories of the place then suddenly made sense. I thought it was a very sad tale on how she met her demise and I wanted to portray her story in my degree film.”

The story-line for her short film

The original narrative Jessica wanted to portray was based directly on Miss Helen’s story and she tried to write something that followed her life quite closely. “The more I worked on it, the harder I found it to write. I became very depressed and I kept hitting dead ends with the story. It was very hard to write her demise as well and I started thinking about abandoning the idea completely.”

She changed tack and decided to focus more on the “feeling” that she had gotten from the Owl House and to try and tell her own story about this mysterious lady. “I eventually ended up writing The Owl House, the animation, which covers loneliness, the ageing process and loss. It incorporates the haunting feeling that I felt when I stood inside Helen Martins’ house.”

Her project not only lead to later work and a very good mark, but was also nominated for a Scottish BAFTA, a huge honour for any animator!

Owl House Studios

Jessica has since started her own animation studio and named it Owl House Studios. “Nobody has ever asked why I chose to call the company Owl House, but I quite like that it is a tiny piece of my past growing up in South Africa. I tried all sorts of names for the company, but nothing else seemed to fit!”

Although Jessica has only visited Nieu Bethesda and the Owl House that one time, followed by another when she was working on her university project, she has always wanted to return, but living in the UK has made it difficult to visit again.

“I do hope that I may visit it again sometime to remind myself of the feeling I got as a child that inspired me so much later in life,” she said.

Guest post: A poem from the Poetry Salzburg Review

This poem by Judith Wilkinson about her visit to the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda was published in the Poetry Salzburg Review. (Autumn 2017, No. 31) The poem is reprinted as a guest post with her permission below:

Visiting the Owl House, Karoo Desert

1 Approach

Descending the mountain road
after a long day’s drive through dust lands,
we found Nieu-Bethesda
as sleepy as we’d imagined it,
its whitewashed church – the one she never visited –
still dominating the village.

An avenue of cypress trees leads us to the house,
where cement owls with spellbound eyes
guard the veranda.

Here Helen Martins grew old and arthritic,
here she started it and ended it
before her Mecca was complete.

2 Inside the House

We hardly know where to rest our eyes
in this kaleidoscope of clutter,
every room a different colour,
every wall gleaming with crushed glass,
every nick-nack-ridden cranny
quirky as a Miró painting.
This is a trickster’s house, full of mirrors, candles, paraffin lamps,
the light bouncing from mirror to mirror,
as we step through a maze of reflections.

It’s as if the house wants to keep us in,
hoping to store up comfort
against the cold desert nights,
making us party to its claustrophobia.
For every guest who never came it has a sculpted chair,
a Honeymoon Room full of craving, fine furnishings and toiletries,
a kitchen with a wide-eyed sun leaping from the ceiling
and a Lion’s Den and Bluebeard’s Closet
to complete the fairy tale.

If the desert had erased all images of dailiness
and left her nothing concrete,
nothing more literal than isolation;
if Helen Martins lacked a context,
then all she had was symbol and raw archetype –
unembedded in the world of Nieu-Bethesda –
and a burning desire.

3 The Camel Yard

While the neighbours organised tea parties and card games,
adorned their yards with gnomes to ward off the desert,
she aspired to Mecca, her own version of it,
constructed out of beer bottles trapping the light.
She colonised her garden with throngs of wise men,
Buddhas, magi, Hindu sages,
acrobatic sun worshippers, arcing backwards to face the light,
and a flock of camels and a forest of legless giraffes
and mermaids and sphinxes and birds and babies
and a Cock Man in the Debauchery Corner
and Dutch ladies with bottle-tiered skirts,
carrying trays of beverages:
all were crammed around her wishing well,
her Pool of Healing.

After forty-seven years of drought
she’d opened the entire
cupboard of her imagination
and spilled it into the desert.

4 The work

There was always work to be done.
Labouring by her side was Koos, her African helper, friend.
His listening ear
interpreted the pressure of her dreams.
He understood the art of twisting the wire,
the delicate process of mounting the cement,
while she foraged for anything usable:
bottle tops, glass, postcards from exotic destinations.

She sketched, discussed, but didn’t touch too much,
as if the gap between conception and creation
was too big for her.
Koos helped bridge it,
gave the lions wire whiskers, headlamp eyes,
clothed each archetype in skin of stone,
coaxed it to where the impassive desert
was open to interpretation,
coaxed it towards being a thing of its time,
because he was a man of his time
and didn’t deal in fantasy alone.

5 Close-ups

A cement Mona Lisa with uneven breasts
fades into the patio wall;
weary as a mourner,
without the will to escape,
her glass-encrusted sleeves rest idly in her lap.
Her maker must have known depression,
sat with it, studied it, respecting her sculpture,
allowing it to be frailer than its namesake,
cross-referencing each part of it with pain,
to get to the core of it.

A larger Mona Lisa
sits broad-shouldered, breasts exposed,
her arms serenely folded round her world.
Her eyes have no irises, no pupils, no outward gaze.
Perhaps its sculptor found some closure in the quiet of this piece.

Carved above a sun we see a phoenix,
risen from the ashes of the desert.
It looks too weighty for transcendence:
its fiery red legs, hefty wings and arrow-straight body
are headed somewhere definite.

And everywhere are owls, each one
lifted from an old blueprint in her head
and thrust into a story
with so many ramifications that we feel a little lost here,
in this garden,
close to the Gates of Paradise.

6 Perhaps

Perhaps she never reached her Mecca,
although her head was full of roadmaps,
perhaps the loneliness eroded her,
although she had a lover, whose brain was lightning-scarred,
perhaps she delved too deep into old almanacs of dreams,
although she had an instinct for modernity,
perhaps fear got the better of her,
although she lit battalions of candles against it,
perhaps she took refuge in whimsy on bad days,
although she put her faith in the fierceness of art,
rose every merciless morning
for its sake.

7 Exit

Her last wish wasn’t granted:
they didn’t mix her ashes
with the precious, red, ground glass
from a bottle on the larder shelf
and glue it to her favourite owl, Oswald;
they didn’t let her
become part of his plumage.

Rebirth is difficult at the best of times.

Driving back
along the lane of cypress trees
and up the mountain road,
we exit
the middle of nowhere.

Her own, chosen exit
is perhaps beside the point.
She found more than one way out.

Footnote: ‘The Owl House’ is a museum in South Africa’s Karoo desert. Its owner, Helen Martins (1897 – 1976), began to sculpt when she was 47 years old and transformed her house and yard into a visionary environment, elaborately decorated and containing more than 300 statues.

Helen Martins and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Everyone who visits the Owl House and Camel Yard will always experience something completely different. Some feel an eerie presence, as if Helen is still tending to her birds and flowers, touching up statues and drinking tea in the kitchen, while others will see the hard work that has gone into creating the marvel that the house and garden brings. Others still will try to read a deeper meaning in the works of art that has stood stagnant for over 40 years.

In the same way, each new visit will reveal another aspect of the layers of works of art and you will always notice something new, something that you didn’t see on your first or second visit. I have been lucky enough to have visited the Owl House on multiple occasions.

One of the major influences in Miss Helen’s work was the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a book that was given to her by her friend Prof Don McLellan.

(Note: It was interesting to note, during my last visit, that there are no books to be found in the Owl House itself. I was specifically looking for the note from Prof McLellan, but in my search I realised that all the books must have been removed at some stage. I found some of the books in the Helen Martins Museum, with Prof McLellan’s note, but it seems that the books that was Miss Helen’s lifeline and inspiration was at some stage removed from the Owl House itself.)

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was first translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald. The illustrations that inspired Helen’s home and garden was done by Robert Stewart Sherriffs.

The imagery from the book, compared to the images in the yard, is plain to see for everyone who has a look at the plates in Helen’s version of the book. Copies of the images can mostly be found around the back door of the house where two men can be seen pouring wine, a copy of the image from her version of the book. The second, a man holding a star, can be found closer to the backdoor next to another scene from the book where men with elongated noses seem to have a deep discussion.

There are also two verses written out in wire in the garden. The first is along the front railing, written in tin and wire, with a pilgrim leaning on his camel looking on. It reads:

Ah, Moon of my Delight who know’st no wane,
The Moon of Heav’n is rising once again:
How of hereafter rising shall she look
Through this same Garden after me – in vain!

This might give us some insight into the love that Helen poured into the works she had put into her garden. It is also the second last quatrain in the first edition.

The second verse is written  in wire next to the moving finger, on a piece of fence erected between the house with the shrines created from bottles to the right. It reads:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all they Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all they Tears wash out a Word of it.


The title, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, was given to the translated version of the book by Edward Fitzgerald in 1895. Rubáiyát means quatrain in Persian and the original work is attributed to the Persian mathematician, Omar Khayyam.

Omar Khayyám (1048-1131) was known in his time as an astrologer and mathematician, rather than a poet and even though his work has become well-known in English literature circles, the original manuscripts are scattered and has been difficult to trace and compile as a whole.

Fitzgerald has taken quite a lot of liberty in the translation of the verses and has paraphrased quite a lot of it. Thus, the different versions of the book of song differs in length. The first stanza was completely Fitzgerald’s own work.

The first edition, 1859, begins with the stanza:

AWAKE! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
An Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultán’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

As such the first version consists of only 75 quatrains, while the second ends on 110 verses. The third, fourth and fifth editions again varied in length, with some stanzas taken away and added. FitzGerald’s translation is cited to be rhyming and metrical, and very free. Many of the lines are paraphrased, while some can’t be traced to the source at all.

The inconsistency in translation is mentioned in a note by W. Aldis Wright, added in the fifth edition and included in the 1971 edition, which includes all five translations. One such instance is the 4th edition where a snake is mentioned, but the original text seemed to have been translated incorrectly.

An interesting fact about the book from Wikipedia: “There was a real jewel-encrusted copy of the book on the Titanic. It was won at an auction and was being shipped to New York. The book remains lost at the bottom of the Atlantic to this day.” (source)

Note: I was lucky to find my own copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, with the same illustrations that inspired Miss Helen, during a visit to Dust Covers, a lovely little bookshop in Nieu Bethesda. It might be a good idea to visit them in New Street on your next visit to the village!