Helen Elizabeth Martins was born on 23 December 1897 in the Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda in the Eastern Cape. She was the youngest of six children and spent her childhood growing up in Nieu Bethesda. She went on to obtain a teacher's diploma in nearby Graaff-Reinet and, around that time, married Johannes Pienaar - a teacher, dramatist and, in later years, a politician. The marriage was brief, and while she certainly spent time in the Transvaal (now Gauteng), Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, knowledge about her activities in the years that followed the breakup of her marriage remains sketchy and often contradictory.
Martins returned to Nieu-Bethesda in the nineteen-thirties to care for her ailing and elderly parents. Her mother, who had long been an invalid, passed away in 1941. 'Oom Piet' Martins died in 1945, and Helen Martins was left alone, with few prospects, in this remote Karoo village. It was some time after this, somewhere in her late forties or early fifties that 'Miss Helen', as she became known, was to begin to transform her surroundings.
It is certain that Miss Helen sought praise and attention through her work but as time progressed, and derision and suspicion grew within the village, she became increasingly reclusive. Miss Helen was notorious for not taking care of herself and as time, arthritis, and the arduous nature of her undertaking took its toll on her physique, she became increasingly shy of her appearance and took great pains to avoid seeing people in the street. The friends that she had, however, describe her as an intensely passionate person who became particularly animated and excited when discussing the latest ideas for her beloved creation.
In order to pursue her vision, Miss Helen had successfully managed to endure great physical and emotional hardship. That is, until her eyesight began to fail her. On a cold winters' morning in 1976, at the age of seventy-eight, Helen Martins took her own life by swallowing caustic soda. It was her wish that her creation be preserved as a museum. And, her desire to be recognised as an artist is magnificently realised in the attention accorded to the Owl House and the fact that her artwork, once an object of derision and embarrassment, has become the single most important asset of the village of Nieu-Bethesda.
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.