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'Miss Helen', South Africa's Foremost Outsider Artist


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.")

Helen Martins was born on 23 December 1897 in Nieu Bethedsa, a small and isolated Karoo village in South Africa's Eastern Cape, the youngest of six children. She gained a teaching diploma after attending school in Graaff-Reinet (the nearest town to Nieu Bethesda, approximately 50 km away) and in 1919 moved to the Transvaal to begin working as a teacher.

In 1920 Helen Martins married a fellow teacher, Willem Johannes Pienaar. Pienaar also worked as a dramatist, and the couple traveled together appearing in theatrical productions around the Transvaal, in Cape Town, and Port Elizabeth. The marriage, however, was rocky, and Helen Martins left her husband on several occasions. They divorced in 1926 after Pienaar abandoned Martins for another woman.

Helen Martins Returns to Nieu Bethesda:

Around 1928 Helen Martins returned to Nieu Bethesda and spent the next 17 years looking after her ailing and elderly parents. Martins' mother died in 1941, and the father in 1945. 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'.

Although she avoided people in general, once a year at Christmas she would open up the house and invite the locals to visit, enhancing the mirrors, murals and crushed-glass coated walls with the light of many candles.

Creation of Helen Martins' Outsider Art:

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 Martin's works of art, displayed in the Camel Yard, are a bustling kaleidoscope of cement sculptures. Predominant themes are the nativity, a curious mélange of Christian and Eastern philosophies (particularly the Bible and the writings of Omar Khayyam), as well as a large number of owls. Helen Martins was especially fond of owls and considering them a kind of totem animal - associated with intuition and insight and wisdom.

Helen Martins Commits Suicide:

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. She was discovered shortly after taking the mixture and removed from Nieu Bethesda to hospital in Graaff-Reinet, where she died three days later, on 8 August 1976.

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.

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