Detour Worth Making: Nieu Bethesda’s Owl House

Of all the side trips I’ve taken, the most interesting was a visit to Helen Martins’ Owl House. Born in 1897, “Miss Helen” suffered through a failed marriage, the death of her parents, and then, in her 40s or 50s, found herself alone in the dry, dusty, desolate Klein Karoo of central South Africa. Surrounded entirely by brown, Miss Helen decided to transform her environment. She hired local workers to install large panes of glass in her modest home. She began casting concrete-and-glass figures — playful, haunting, flat, but passionate — that she assembled around her property…maybe to keep her company. All 300+ of the figures face east.

Simultaneously, Miss Helen began collecting colored glass, grinding it to a fine powder, covering the interior walls of her home with glue, and spraying them with the glass. The effect — brilliant, shiny, kaleidoscopic, and dreamy — was more striking than paint. Unfortunately, it was also more dangerous, as her eyes, damaged from fine bits of flying glass, soon failed. In 1976, she committed suicide by swallowing caustic soda. Athol Fugard wrote a play, The Road to Mecca, about her, and This Is My World is a photo-essay of her dreamscape-home.

Today, the Owl House stands as a tribute to this reclusive yet inspired woman. Smack in the middle of still-tiny Nieu Bethesda, this rural community has grown into a small but thriving artist’s colony. Though hours from the coast, it’s absolutely worth an overnight.