Tuesday, March 21, 2023

This Is My World: The Life of Helen Martins, Creator Of The Owl House by Sue Imrie Ross

For those who read my blog, now you know where I get its name. The first time I seriously studied Helen Martins' Owl House was when I was still doing art classes in high school. Later, we had the Athol Fugard play The Road to Mecca as part of our set reading. During university, I studied a module on Outside Art, and a few years after that, went back to university where I did a few literature modules – a reread of The Road to Mecca was part of this, again. In my opinion, I think it's safe to say that Helen Martins' Owl House, a work of Outsider Art situated in the small Eastern Cape town of Nieu Bethesda, is an important part of South Africa's cultural landscape and heritage, and her influence is felt to this day.

I'm not going to reinvent the wheel and go into Helen Martins' history exhaustively – that is beyond the scope of the review – but I am going to talk about one of the important written works that explore Miss Helen's world and life – that of This is My World: The Life of Helen Martins, Creator of the Owl House, by Sue Imrie Ross, which was, sadly, published posthumously. 

I'll start by saying, that if you ever run across this book in a second-hand bookstore for anything less than R1,500, snap it up. It's been out of print for years, and if you're passionate about art and the life of this remarkable woman, This is My World is a serious collector's item. Within its pages, not only does Sue gather many important primary sources, but she offers an incredibly detailed study of the materials, themes, people, and era that came together when Miss Helen embarked on her work. So as an important resource for research for future writings, this is invaluable, especially now that the people who knew Miss Helen personally are all passing from this world.

Supplemented by beautiful photos, this in-depth work frames the Owl House and its attached Camel Yard sensitively, and from a Jungian perspective that offers deep insights into this amazing work. I realise in hindsight that although I'd taken this book out at the library many years ago, I had not finished reading it. At the time, I'd had the Anne Graaff book, which although as thought-provoking and inspiring, does not go into quite as much exhaustive detail. I now own both, I am proud to say, and look forward to being informed by the work. During December 2022, I had another 'pilgrimage' to Nieu Bethesda, and stayed at a friend's cottage where they had This is my World on their shelf – and I finally had the time (and quiet) to read the book cover to cover, something which most certainly informed my two visits to the Owl House during our stay.

If you do find yourself wending your way to the Eastern Cape with a visit planned to Nieu Bethesda, this book will provide you with far more than just a glimpse into the inner workings of this important part of our cultural heritage. Many of its details will be brought to vivid life and make your visit all the richer. It gladdens my heart to see how, today, the Owl House is now the reason why many tourists visit Nieu Bethesda. From the work of one woman and her assistants, this has truly become a work that offers a vital lifeline to a small, isolated community and to South Africa at large.