You don’t get past it without noticing. New Bethesda or Nieu-Bethesda in Afrikaans/Dutch is all about the Owl House which gives the small little town in the middle of the dusty veld of the Great Karoo its fame. Even a fifty kilometer road through the Sneeuberg mountains with the endpoint at the well-known Owl House in New Bethesda was named Owl Route.
The fame of the remote town sparked with a woman, born in New Bethesda in 1897. She became a teacher in Transvaal, married a colleague and traveled with him acting in theater productions around the country.
The marriage was short lived. She gave up her dreams of traveling to take care of her elderly parents. Her demanding authoritative, most probably abusive father outlived his wife by four years till 1945.
After his death she found her vocation in art. The house became a kaleidoscope of colors with exception of the room of her father, which windows she bricked up, painted the walls black, and put a sign reading “The Lion’s Den”.
Maybe to escape the geographic constraints Helen Martins immersed in a devotion to create a fairy world of her own in and around her house. As the projects became more complex she had a few talented employees to help her out. It must have been an exciting experience to see new works emerging from the intense collaborative process.
Helen Martins invited wanderers to enter through a wide porch into her dreamworld. The yard filled with oriental paravanes of nomads with camels, fairy tale sculptures and owls which observe the fantasy land with their overly bright, glassy eyes.
As the years went on in this secluded hand-made paradise in the middle of nowhere Helen Martins preferred the seclusion and closed the entrance for public and drew back to a life in solitude.
Tragically her art caused her eyesight to fail as her preferred material had been fine crushed glass to decorate the walls and ceilings. Baring this handicap she lost sense of life and attempted suicide. She died 1976 at the age of 78.
As per her wishes, her house was opened as a museum. Fortunately wanderers can enjoy Helen Martin’s art once again. It’s a treat to visit the Owl House, to experience the magic and story this place has to tell.