Recently I was delving through old photographs probably looking for ideas, but with no particular goal. I came across a series of photos of the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda. If you have been visiting this site for some time you will have noted my fondness for this tiny karoo village. In particular the owl house, famous today for the cement sculptures by Helen Martins and her assistant Koos Malgas. Helen Martins was viewed with suspicion in her time and she must have lived a lonely and desperate life until her passing by suicide in 1976. The label of eccentric seems to follow her, but in truth she was one of our greatest artists.
Looking through the photos of her home's interior leaves no doubt about Helen Martin's vision and desire to capture the sunlight as it arced its way across the karoo sky. Crushed glass is pasted onto walls and ceilings to sparkle throughout the day. Sculptures of many figures including the ever present owls keep watch over the warm interior. Some visitors today are disturbed by the spectacle and even feel spooked. What is a fact however is that Helen Martins was a determined and highly creative person. She followed her own path even though it was against popular views of the time. A contrarian. Sadly she paid the price for it by being ostracised in the little town. Ironically her legacy continues to benefit the village to this day.
It reminds me of that other artist who followed the harsh sunlight of southern France trying to capture the essence of the landscape in thick, bright and expressive brushstrokes. Van Gogh was misunderstood and regarded as an eccentric, but his undeniable talent was fully recognised after his death.
Not every artist needs to live with extreme views or obsessive lifestyles. The lesson I think is that every artist must express themselves truthfully. Finding that truth may be difficult until the artist stops seeking and then discovers it was always there to begin with. Do not follow the path of others, learn from others where necessary, but unless we walk our own path we will always be unsatisfied. Be contrary, when needed, to stay on your unique path.
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