The Owl House – Part 1

Social media is a tricky mistress. As much as I loathe the narcissism I also love sharing what I’m up to and seeing what my friends spread across the world are up to too. The temptation to sign off starts to rise within me, and then I find out about some great event or see a wonderful pic and I stay. One thing that keeps me on Facebook recently has been those memory reminders. Since the site has been going for over a decade now, I get a little notification telling me what I sent out into the internet ether on that day every year I’ve been on Facebook. 
“It’s complicated”
Usually consisting of random status updates that I forgot the context of, and photos I wish weren’t taken, but sometimes it’s a special memory or a particularly funny moment that reminds me of people I love who are far away and encourages me to reach out. I had one such pleasant surprise recently.

Down the bottom of a long list of photos and odd updates was an album I’d uploaded in 2008. I had moved to the UK the year before and this was relating to my first visit back home to South Africa since starting afresh. I remember the excitement about catching up with family and friends, being sad about the passing of one friend whose absence still stung but also anticipating a short road trip my parents proposed we take. 

My mum had suggested going into the ‘wilder regions’ outside of Cape Town to give me a sense of space after moving from a relatively small and spread out town to the congested concrete hive that is London. Having lived both sides of the pond herself she knew what she was talking about. Drafting an itinerary, my Dad asked me if there was anywhere in particular I’d like to go. I had remembered a beautiful retreat in a tiny town called Montagu I’d been to in passing years before which I wanted to revisit, but then I thought of somewhere I’d never been, a local place of legend called The Owl House

The tiny village of Nieu-Bethesda in the Eastern Cape could be listed in the dictionary as an example of ‘the middle of nowhere’ without any irony. 50km from the nearest town (Graaff-Reinet) there are only around 1500 residents and, according to Wikipedia, no cash points! The village however, holds the very special Owl House Museum.
Driving into the valley
The house belonged to Helen Martins, who inherited it from her parents. Martins was born in the village in 1897, the youngest of six children, and moved away to teach in her twenties. She married but unfortunately this was not a happy union. Once she and her husband parted ways she moved back into her family home and cared for her aging parents. She was apparently close to her mother but there is evidence of a difficult and speculated abusive relationship with her father, made evident by her moving him into a separate room outside of the house. Following his death she painted the interior of this room black, bricked up the windows and locked it shut leaving a sign outside in Afrikaans reading ‘The Lion’s Den’. 
The Owl House Museum
Once both her parents had passed away, Martins started to make the house her own. She enlisted the help of another local, Koos Malgas, and the two of them set to work turning the house into a work of art; completely redecorating the interior and filling the backyard with concrete and glass sculptures. Martins relationship with Malgas was the gossip of the village and actually caused some contention with her neighbours since Malgas was not white, and this was at a time when races were legally segregated. 
Classic owl shape

Most common works
After working on her house for over a decade Martins’ health started to fail. Arthritis had stiffened her and she was going blind, presumably a result of working with crushed glass for years. Depression overcame her as she felt she could not live ‘fully’ anymore, resulting in her ingesting a mixture of caustic soda and crushed glass and dying in agony in hospital a few days later at the age of 78.

Martins herself remains quite the enigma due to her reclusive lifestyle; but we can gain a glimpse of her through what she created. After her death in 1976, as per her wishes, the house was eventually turned into a museum. Declared a National Monument in 1986, Malgas returned to the village in 1991 to restore and preserve the works he helped create. The Owl House Foundation was formed in 1996 which runs the museum. Malgas passed away in 2000.

Read Part2 to see more of my experience of The Owl House