When Afrikaner trekkers arrived in this dry part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, they named it Nieu Bethesda because of the eternal stream that bubbled down from the plateau. They were thinking of a place of flowing water in Jerusalem where people came for healing. Since then, this special place has been home to special people. Chief among them was the reclusive Helen Martins born in 1897, who had turned her residence into a Nieu Bethesda Owl House.
View of Nieu Bethesda Owl House
We know little about the woman who peered out of the photograph or the reason for her Nieu Bethesda Owl House. We know she had a disastrous marriage with an actor that disintegrated in 1926. Shortly afterwards, she returned to her birthplace and cared for her aged parents for 31 years. They left her the house and she set about transforming it.
Beginning of a Journey
Ground glass adorns Helen Martin’s visionary environment that is home to over three hundred statues of owls, pyramids, camels, people, and peacocks made of cement and wire. Inside, the gloomy Nieu Bethesda Owl House her parents built to keep the fierce heat out twinkles with reflected light from mirrors and ground glass on the walls.
Sculptures in the Garden
Helen Martin’s chief inspiration was biblical texts, poetry and paintings by the mystic William Blake, and the Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet Omar Khayyam. Most statues face east to Mecca. She was an eclectic. She called her home ‘My World’.
Nieu Bethesda Owl House Interior
Alas, Helen’s eyesight could not withstand hammering by cement and ground glass over many decades. She took her life when her sight began to fail because she could not imagine being unable to see her creation. In her lifetime she was somewhat disconnected from the community. After she died, they accepted the task of preserving her creation, that now provides an eternal stream of income.