The strange and wonderful Owl House of Helen Martin started being created by Helen Martins in the 50’s and were made famous by Athol Fugard in “The Road to Mecca”. Although she has various regligions presented in her Camel Yard, she was fascinated by the East. Helen Martins lay ill in bed one night, with the moon shining in through the window, and considered how dull and grey her life had become. She resolved, there and then, that she would strive to bring light and colour into her life. That simple decision, to embellish her environment, was to grow into an obsessive urge to express her deepest feelings, her dreams and her desires.
From the mundane articles that surround her, ‘Miss Helen’ (as she was known), extracted and manipulated an emblematic language of sun-faces, owls and other images.
This is all set against a luminous backdrop of walls and ceilings coated with elaborate patterns of crushed glass imbedded in bands of brightly coloured paint. In the pantry, provisions had to make way for colourful jars of carefully graded and sorted glass that she laboriously crushed through a large coffee grinder in the back yard.
It was only when the interior of the house was virtually completed that Miss Helen applied her imagination to the world beyond her door. She was particularly inspired by biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and the works by William Blake over a period of about ten years, she and Koos Malgas created from her imaginings the hundreds of sculptures and relief figures that crowd the ‘camel yard’ and cover the walls of the house. They utilised basic materials such as cement, wire and glass and playfully transformed everyday objects. Her favourite animals, owls and camels, predominate, but all manner of real and fantastical beings are to be found. Humans take the form of acrobats and graceful ‘sun worshippers’. A procession of shepherds and wise men lead a vast, almost life-size camel train toward a humble nativity scene installed in a stable of tiered glass bottles. A sign on the fence orientates the tableau towards and ‘east’ as designated by Miss Helen, and seamlessly integrates Christianity with her fascination for the orient. The yard is dotted with sphinxes, Buddhas and the sanctuaries of tiered glass bottles that she called her ‘Meccas’.