The Outsider Artist of Nieu-Bethesda

owl house nieu bethesda
The dominant, all-seeing Owl at the Camel Yard.

The biggest lesson humanity can learn from the legacy of the troubled Helen Martins’ life is this: Treasure your Outsider Artist.    

There was a time when Miss Helen, as she was known locally, was at odds with her neighbours in Nieu-Bethesda, a tiny Mid-Karoo hamlet that snugs into the Sneeuberge, a settlement that just slumbered on unnoticed for decades.

There are many varying reports and dissections of her unhappy life, which eventually led to suicide. And when you walk around her Owl House and Camel Yard today, you’ll hear different reactions to her work and visions.

owl house nieu bethesda
Take your time as you wander through the Owl House and the Camel Yard. You will see many strange things…

Some don’t get it. The cement forms, friezes and eccentric collections in the house don’t resonate with them. Then there are those who think it’s all a great work of genius. Others find it downright creepy.

But in a world of look-alike lives, globalisation and identical condo developments as far as the eye can see, there’s nothing quite so special as your Outsider Artist.

Defined as ‘raw, or visionary art’, it is work generally made by people living out of the mainstream of modern existence. In other words, work performed by, wait for it, real individuals.

owl house nieu bethesda
Every photo foray into the Owl House and Camel Yard reveals another aspect of the artist’s vision.

And today the reason most people have heard of Nieu-Bethesda is The Owl House. The village thrives around the legacy of the sad lady who worked in cement and ground glass with her devoted assistant Koos Malgas. She loved light and saw beer as the way to bliss. Bless you Miss Helen, you were The One…

This is an extract from Karoo Keepsakes I – A Traveller’s Companion to the Heartland of South Africa by Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit



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