Sunday, May 16, 2010

Helen Elizabeth Martins - 'Outsider' Artist


From About.com:

Helen Elizabeth Martins ('Miss Helen') is considered South Africa's foremost Outsider Artist.

(Outsider Art was first recognized by the French artist Jean Dubuffet, who coined the term 'Art Brut', or Raw Art, and described it as "fantastic, raw, visionary art created by individuals often maladjusted, with no art training, who work outside the mainstream of the art world.")


... left with few prospects in a marginalized Karoo village, Martins became increasingly reclusive and isolated from the local community.

Known to the residents as 'Miss Helen' and thought of as a strange and rather outlandish character, she shied away from general contact, and began transforming her house and garden ...



... Helen Martins' art was greeted with derision and suspicion from the village.

Despite crippling arthritis, and the amputation of her small toes (her feet were disfigured from wearing narrow shoes) which left her unable to wear anything but slip-ons on her feet, Martins decorated her home with 'glass and light' ...


... In 1964 Helen Martins employed Koos Malgas, an itinerant sheepshearer, to help her make the cement-and -glass statues which fill the Camel Yard outside her house. Formally the garden, this sculpture yard had over 300 figures and animals.

Malgas became her foremost friend and companion, and remained by her side for the last 12 years of her life. Helen's close relationship with her Coloured assistant was viewed with great suspicion by Nieu Bethesda's Apartheid era residents ...



... Helen Martins' eyesight began to fail and in 1976 she took her own life by swallowing a mixture of caustic soda and crushed glass in olive oil.

She could not bear the thought of going blind - a great theme in her life and work is light - and she was worried that she would be taken away from her life's work.



Koos Malgas remained for another two years before relocating to Worcester, but returned in 1991 to assist in the restoration of the Owl House which had been declared a national monument and was supported by the newly created Owl House Foundation.

It had been Helen Martins' greatest wish that the Owl House and Camel Yard be preserved as a museum.



I would love to make a pilgrimage to Miss Helen's Owl House someday - I feel like we share a similar twist of mind ...

More info and images here and here.

Images in this post by Marion Boddy-Evans

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21 comments:

  1. OSC, how interesting that you and Andy Holroyd (trousers to grow into blog, via my blogroll if needed) have posted today about "eccentrics". This ladies artwork is stunning and more so considering her disabilities. Thankyou for enlightening the world (OK, my bit at least) about her!

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  2. Thanks Dave - perhaps, unbeknown to us, today is 'International Eccentrics Day' - I guess I should get out of bed now and go sniff the flowers huh ... :)

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  3. I've never been to the Owl House but I also have much interest in visiting. One of these days.

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  4. Thanks for the visit and comment Lauri - yes, I'll have to find Nieu-Bethesda on a map though, I'd never heard of it before I became aware of Miss Helen ...

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  5. It is a sad story about how and why Miss Helen died. At least she was able to leave a legacy. It sounds as if she was born a little ahead of her time. It would have been nice to hear of her art being appreciated during her life time.

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  6. I visited th Owl House last December and am very glad that I did. It is beautiful, strange, eerie and Miss Helen was, indeed, eccentric........

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  7. - Penny - yes, much of her life and the way it ended was tragic but I can understand her fear of a life of darkness when "a great theme in her life and work is light" ...


    - Charlotte - thanks for your visit ... your comment has made me more determined to "feel" the Owl House ...

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  8. Beautiful blog and photos. Have a nice day Radka.

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  9. Thanks for your visit and kind comment Radka - please do come again ...

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  10. What interesting stories you have to tell. The lions were fabulous and Miss Helen's story should be known outside of South Africa.-- Inger

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  11. Thanks for your visit and kind comment Inger - yes, I'm sure that the internet and bloggers will help spread the word about Miss Helen ...

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  12. what a tragedy that she felt she couldn't go on despite her failing eyesight, and maybe rely on her sense of touch..then again with crippling arthritis...:(

    as for being an outsider..I am with you all the way there, these days I just pretend to fit in..:)

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  13. yeah Monica - I think also, that she lived in abject poverty and, blindness would just have made her situation worse in a community with no social support systm - I must confess that I have empathy with her decision to end her life ...

    ... sometimes it's necessary to pretend in order to survive ...

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  14. I visited the Owl House in December last year. It is an amazing place and well worth a visit.

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  15. I have not yet been to visit the Owl House, and would really like to see it sometime. I believe there is not much else to see in the little town - that it's really small. Many high schools in East London (SA) often organize school trips to the area. If my boys go, when they're older, I hope they take lots of photos!

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  16. Thanks for the visits and comments Charlotte and Teresa ... :)

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  17. I've heard about the Owl House & seen photo's etc of it ... would love to visit one day ... it seems quite unique and most unusual !

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  18. Indeed Lynda ... it's one of my missions to visit it too ...

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  19. Believe it's fascinating!?
    Gena D
    Thinking Aloud

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  20. I visited The Owl House yesterday. I left with lots of different feelings and emotions. Her art is filled with her own emotions and demons...... The house itself is still filled with her spirit and it is a bit eerie to walk through the rooms.... we will be back to do some more exploration through the village and revisit the Owl House. There is not enough time in your first visit to take in everything.

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  21. thanks for your visit and comment Tracy - you've just made me more determined to visit miss helen's house someday ... I'll keep in mind that i should overnight in the town ...

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