A photograph taken by Stewart Lund in 1974, two years before Helen Martins's death, from the Sue Ross archive.
A photograph taken by Stewart Lund in 1974, two years before Helen Martins's death, from the Sue Ross archive.

Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape - I remember my first visit to the Owl House quite clearly – an experience that filled me with wonder and sadness in equal measure. Wonder, because finally I was able to set foot in the home of the outsider artist Helen Martins, whom I’d admired for many years, and sadness, because the ravages of time were painfully obvious. Shards of glass pressed into cement as decoration for sculptures had dropped off, and small details, such as the “beach” painted in white on the house’s porch, had been worn away. Not to mention sculptures that had simply shattered as they’d fallen.

Each year, thousands of visitors flock to the tiny hamlet of Nieu Bethesda, which is situated off the N9 outside the Eastern Cape town of Graaff-Reinet. These folks visit Nieu Bethesda primarily to see the magical Owl House, injecting vitality into an otherwise stagnant economy, and many of the hamlet’s businesses and individuals rely on the income tourists bring.

And now, more so than ever before, Helen Martins’s legacy needs to be preserved.

Says Arno du Toit, administrative manager of the Owl House Foundation: “The role that visitors to the Owl House play is very important, especially when you consider that the economy of our little hamlet revolves – I’d say at least 90 percent – around the Owl House and everything connected with it. Especially when you consider that late-1980s Nieu Bethesda was turning into a ghost town, and it was the forming of the Friends of the Owl House, as well as Athol Fugard’s drama The Road to Mecca, that put Nieu Bethesda properly on the world map.

“Quite a number of hawkers – we refer to them as the ‘owl sculptors’ – have small ‘unofficial’ stalls diagonally opposite the Owl House where they sell their own brand of cement owls. Take the Owl House away and quite a percentage of job-creation would be lacking.”

Recent newspaper reports, such as that in the Cape Times on August 14, put a negative slant on the work that is taking place at the Owl House, with some saying that the “appearance is not what Helen left behind”, that the Owl House is “losing its soul”, or that it is “a Disneyland gone wrong”.

This brings another matter to the fore. How does one authentically restore such a work of art?

I first encountered the Owl House when we studied the Fugard play in high school. Later, when I was completing my graphic design diploma, one of our modules covered outsider artists, and we discussed Helen Martins’s work. One thing was certain, I found her menagerie of enigmatic cement sculptures and her approach to beautifying her home with mirrors, bright colours and crushed glass utterly mesmerising.

Another thing that was abundantly clear to me was that the Owl House, without the guidance of its remarkable creator, was a dead thing, no more than a gradually crumbling museum piece.

Let’s face it, if permanence was what Helen Martins had aimed for, she would have taken the same route as the Egyptians and carved her owls, bottle-skirted hostesses, mermaids, pilgrims and camels from stone.

As it is, her cement structures formed over armatures of wire are ephemeral. And, in the harsh Karoo climate, which fluctuates between hellishly hot and freezing cold as the seasons shift, this combination of fragile glass and cement is bound to take strain.

Huldah van Wyk, chairwoman of the Owl House Foundation, says: “Temperature extremes cause bottles to crack and glass to part from cement. The freezing of water inside cracks enlarges fractures. Temperatures can range from -13ºC to 38ºC, with snow, rain, dry seasons and strong winds all playing a role. Dampness causes metal to rust, armatures to corrode and cement to decay. Rusting armatures inside sculptures ‘grow’ and cause cement to fracture.

“Stress fractures are caused by the weight of the sculptures, particularly on extended limbs, and exacerbated by wind and other factors, such as the occasional bump by visitors.”

To preserve these sculptures, action needs to be taken constantly to maintain structural integrity. Van Wyk is adamant that Martins’s legacy is being handled with sensitivity, in keeping with the original state of the Owl House. Photographic records are being used to guide the restoration.

“Photos chosen were of Helen, her friends, and the Camel Yard when Helen was alive, showing the bright colours in which she painted some sculptures. She used oil colours, as well as car paints, according to one person who took her into town. We have some tins and brushes of hers,” Van Wyk says.

“The Owl House Foundation is researching and employing contemporary materials and methods to combat inherent weaknesses. This is obviously a slow and expensive operation, but it is designed for long-term preservation. In this we have a sponsor in PPC Cement. Chryso sponsors us with special cement products for the restoration of the sculptures.”

Justin Malgas, the grandson of Koos Malgas, who aided Martins in her work, was trained by well-known sculptor Frans Boekkooi and has, until recently, worked on the restoration.

“We will train a new sculptor soon. As each element is repaired and preserved, we will attempt to restore it to its original state. This programme will include elements that have disappeared from the Camel Yard and, it is hoped, a return of the original atmosphere of life and sparkle.”

While the Owl House will always miss its most vital component – Miss Helen – it is gratifying to know the work endures in the care of people who are passionately involved with its restoration.

The foundation is researching the condition of the Owl House in about 1976 and invites those who have photographs from that time to submit them for the Owl House’s archives.

l See www.theowlhouse.co.za. - Sunday Independent