Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Nieu Bethesda

In the Sneeuberg Mountains, in the arid Karoo region near Graaff Reinet, there is a delightful but remote little village called Nieu Bethesda. It was once the centre of the local farming community, but in the 1940s and '50s was eclipsed by larger towns in the district and went into decline. If it wasn't for the fact that it used to be home to an eccentric artist, I imagine few people would ever hear of the place.

But a sad and reclusive woman named Helen Martins returned there in her late forties, divorced and alone, her parents dead. She started building a fascinating world of concrete sculpture, fantastic figures and mythical beasts set around a house decorated with luminous paint and multicoloured panes of glass. She worked with crushed glass, coating walls, ceilings, and virtually everything else that stood still long enough with the brightly coloured glass shards. The Owl House was her attempt to bring light, life and colour into her lonely grey world.

The works created by Helen and her labourer Koos Malgas in the 1940s are now regarded as a masterpiece of visionary art. Every sculpture would be discussed beforehand over early morning coffee in the kitchen and, although Martins seldom did any of the physical work, together they would engineer each new inspiration into being. This process developed into a unique creative relationship that clearly defines Malgas's integral part in the creation of the Owl House.

In recent years, the little village has attracted a growing community of artists, including well known painters, sculptors, ceramic artists, weavers etc. They have brought new life to the town, which has become a major tourist attraction, despite (or maybe because of!) its remoteness.
Many have set up art and craft teaching studios, and are training the local community, to empower them to also make a living from their creativity.
The whole place has a fairytale quality about it, which I think can best be summed up by these two enchanting buildings...

a private home, sculpted rather than built, with a stone turrets on the roof,

and the old grain silo in town which is now a cafe and guest house. The round room at the top boasts a circular bed to match!

It is one of those little gems, tucked away off the beaten track, which is a real pleasure to discover!


Janet said...

The photo of the church and the windmill is fantastic! I wish I could visit this village and see it in person. It sounds magical. All those glass shards must sparkle like diamonds when the sun hits them.

Jenty said...

That grain silo looks so CUTE! I wanna go there to see it!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

WOW! How very INTERESTING an d CUte--I love that grain silo place too, and also all the sculptures! Very interesting.

dot said...

What an interesting place! How I'd love to visit there.