“Instead she did something which small minds and small souls can never forgive…she dared to be different!” – Elsa about Miss Helen
The Road to Mecca is inspired by the true life story of Helen Elizabeth Martins, the youngest of six children, born and raised in the small South African village of Nieu Bethesda in December, 1897. Martins obtained her teacher's diploma in nearby Graaff-Reinet and moved to the Transvaal region to become a teacher. In 1920 she married Johannes Pienaar, a teacher, playwright, and politician. The marriage was troubled, and it ended in 1926. Little is known about Martins in the years during or immediately following her marriage.
In the 1930s, Martins returned to Nieu Bethesda to take care of her elderly parents. Her invalid mother died in 1941 and her father died in 1945, leaving Martins isolated in the remote village with little prospects of her own. One night, as she laid ill in bed, depressed about her dull and grey existence, she resolved to find a way to bring light and color into her life. This decision lead to a lifelong artistic quest to transform her environment.
In her late 40s, with no overall plan and no formal artistic training, Martin began decorating the interior of her house. Fascinated with the reflection of light and different hues of colors, she covered her walls with crushed glass, set in elaborate patterns on layers of colored paint. She created a visual language with motifs of sun-faces and owls. Around 1964, after completing the interior of the house, Martins extended her vision outside; for the next 12 years she worked with Koos Malgas, a local sheepshearer and builder, to create the sculptures and relief figures that would fill the “Camel Yard” and cover the walls of the house. Inspired by the Bible and world poets, the sculptures represent Christian as well as eastern religious icons: shepherds, sheep, camels, and other real and imaginary beings. All the figures in the Camel Yard face east—the direction of Mecca. An arched entryway at the front of the house is watched over by a double-faced owl.
Over time Martins, known as “Miss Helen” by her neighboring villagers, was regarded with suspicion and derision. The physical demands of her artwork, arthritis, and old age all took a toll on her appearance and health; it was known that she did not take care of herself. She became increasingly reclusive and even avoided seeing people on the street. Her remaining friends claimed that she was intensely passionate—especially about her ideas for her creations. Her work continued, but cost her physical and emotional hardship, until she lost her eyesight. In 1976, at age of 78, Helen Martins took her own life by swallowing caustic soda. After her death, the Owl House fell into disrepair and some articles were removed.
In 1991, a group of individuals formed an organization, Friends of the Owl House, to restore and preserve the property. They brought Koos Malgas back to Nieu Bethesda to restore the Camel Yard, and he maintained the property until 1996. The Owl House Foundation then formed to manage the site. The Owl House is now a popular tourist attraction, and as a result, Nieu Bethesda has guesthouses, restaurants, coffee shops, and art galleries. Miss Helen’s creation – once an object of derision and embarrassment – is now the destination for over 13,000 visitors each year.
The Road to Mecca is playing at the American Airlines Theatre December 16, 2011 through March 4, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Road to Mecca, Upstage