Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

We left Johannesburg to drive to Cape Town, following a map that Peter Rich, a friend at Witwatersrand University, gave us.

Through dusty little villages, around townships and over great plains, we made our way for the karoo, eating ostrich burgers or springbok steaks wherever we could.

In Nieu Bethesda, we found the Owl House, an overwhelming example of what is billed as South Africa's finest example of outsider art.

Helen Martins, most likely depressed, most certainly eccentric, decided to add some color to her life. Starting with the inside of the house, she adhered crushed glass and paint to the walls, floors and ceilings. Then she filled all available space, including the sizable back yard, with concrete sculptures.

Her themes were many: ancient Egypt, the three wise men, stylish women and animals, glass and yes, owls.

It was a delight to first enter the place. Her simple productivity was stunning. But further into the visit, I felt the sad knowledge that we were looking at the small, however rich, world of a very lonely woman.

I think of the Owl House as a personal lesson. I'll never be a cat lady, the sort of shut-in who only talks to her 15 animals. But putzing around the house, making whatever I want from found materials for the rest of my life, yeah, that could suck me in. Shut-ins have so much time! Forgo the awkwardness of social life and the disappointments of personal relationships. Make your own world, be self-contained!

Recently someone told me that our objective here, with this living thing, is not to be happy. Helen Martins was not happy.

Unfortunately, many of the concrete sculptures are beginning to suffer damage. In some places the wire supports are showing; in others, rust bleeds out over the porous concrete surfaces. An effort is being made to restore them but no one really knows the best approach to preventing these hundreds of figures from crumbling.

A bird bath.

I don't know where she slept; the house must have had 5 beds in it and yet she lived alone. Every structural surface had been covered with crushed glass. How she applied it without losing the skin on her hands and knees is a mystery.

This bathroom, with a hand-poured concrete tub and a full view of the back yard, had a ceiling that I could could barely walk under and a glass-tiled floor.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home