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The Owl House

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.

It is not known in what order the work was accomplished, other than the fact that the interior of the house was virtually completed before the exterior was begun. There was no overall plan, but what began as a decorative quest for light and colour soon developed into a fascination with the interplay of reflection and space, of light and dark and different hues. From the mundane articles that surrounded her, Miss Helen 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.

It was only when the interior of the house was virtually completed, that Helen Martins applied her imagination to the world beyond her door. She was particularly inspired by biblical texts, the poetry of Omar Khayyam, and the works of William Blake. Over a period of about twelve 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. Her favourite animals, owls and camels, predominate, but all manner of real and fantastical beings are to be found. A procession of shepherds and wise men lead a vast, almost life-size camel train toward an 'East' as designated by Helen Martins, and integrates Christianity with her fascination for the Orient.

The arched entranceway from the street, watched over by a stoic double-faced owl, is significantly barricaded by a tall mesh fence and a stand of tall Queen-of-the-Night cacti. Like the elaborately bottle-skirted hostesses within the yard, this arch must have been intended to welcome the visitor into her 'world', but the fence speaks plainly of an increasingly troubled relationship between Helen Martins and the outside world.

Read more about Helen Martins >>
Read more about Koos Malgas >>


23 December 1897 Helen Martins born, Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa
November 1914 Passed Standard 8 Examinations, Nieu-Bethesda
1915 to 1918 Attends teacher's training college, Graaff-Reinet
± 1919 Works as a schoolteacher in the Transvaal (now Gauteng province)
7 January 1920 Helen married Willem Johannes Pienaar. The couple lived on her brother Peter's farm at Wakkerstroom in the Transvaal.
1922 to 1925 With Johannes Pienaar - they appeared in theatrical productions together. She, however, left him on and off during this time.
25 May 1926 Officially divorced from W J Pienaar
± 1927-9 Returned to Nieu-Bethesda to look after her sick mother
10 January 1941 Death of Helen's mother, Nieu-Bethesda
1 February 1945 Death of Helen's father, Nieu-Bethesda
approx. 1945 Started work on transforming interior of house
4 July 1952 Marriage to Jacobus Johannes Machiel Niemand - the marriage lasted for between 6 weeks and 3 months
± 1964 Koos Malgas started working at the Owl House
8 August 1976 Death of Helen Martins, Nieu-Bethesda
1978 Koos Malgas leaves Nieu-Bethesda
November 1989 Owl House declared a provisional National Monument
1991 Koos Malgas persuaded to return to N-B
1996 Formation of the Owl House Foundation
1996 Koos Malgas retires
20 November 2000 Koos Malgas passed away in Graaff-Reinet

Selected Bibliography:


Beardsley, J. 1995. Gardens of Revelation. New York: Abbeville Press.
Emslie, A L. 1991. The Owl House. New York: Viking Penguin.
Emslie, A L. 1997. *A journey through the Owl House. London: Penguin.
Ross, S I. 1997. *This is my world: the life of Helen Martins, creator of the Owl House. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
Ross, S I. 1991. The Owl House, in Landmarks, edited by B Jones. Sloane Park: Premier.
von Schaewen, D & Maizels J. 1999 *Fantasy Worlds. Taschen, Köln.

* These books are available from the Owl House Foundation.


Davies, D A C. 1991. The Owl House,. Cathay Pacific Discovery, June, Vol.19, 6:86-94
Cheng, S. 1989. The artist in search of her private Mecca,. Washington Post, August: pp. G1, G12.
Ford, S. 1989. Assemblages: A tribute to Helen Martins,. Art, No.3. February:73-88.
Maclennan, B. 1998. The Owl House: Helen Martins, extraordinary vision’. ADA - Art Design Architecture, No.5:23-25.
Maclennan, D. 1978. The Road to Mecca,. Contrast, No.45, Winter:45-57. Marks Paton, B. 1989. Helen Martins: The mythology of the moon and female principle. Art, No.3, February:46-52.
Milton C. 1992. The stuff of dreams... Archetypal reflections on aspects of The Owl House. Mantis (Journal of the Cape of Good Hope Centre for Jungian Studies), Vol.4,2, Summer:21-31.
Ross, S I. 1991/92. The Owl House. Raw Vision, No5, Winter: 26-31.