Glass Woman, Owl House

GLASS WOMAN, OWL HOUSE                            

(on Helen Martins, Outsider artist, South Africa)


Nieu Bethesda. In this desert village

springwater channels square through rock

and white patterned lives, relegating black

to oblique dry seams and shadows;

a chiaroscuro geometry no southern sun

can compromise. But an outlander

brings fractured colour. She will cross

a boundary and risk the wellspring dying.


The dream is eccentricity in slow

sure progress. Barriers erected,

blinds drawn, each pane of light adheres

another glassy layer. Double vision;

pure opaque colour against the white

Karoo glare, fencing in seclusion,

endeavour, the uncorrupted shards

of difference, and barb edged humour.


Shadowy lust. Gleaming jars conserve

crystalline harvests, strange sharp

fruits colour serried ranks on slatted

wooden shelves; damson and greengage plum,

clemantine, apricot, creamy apple, peach.

Heart red grape. The soft slump of stewing

surrogated by jagged ground-glass velvet

and the grinding power of Spong.


A prodigal palette preserved against

dire future when strength and will fail.


Owl woman, family in the yard, glass encrusted,

statue stiff and dedicated. Blind headlight eyes

rake heaven for respite and recognition (rare

as the soulsong ring of finest glass). But with skies

obscure, shards of self doubt pierce the heart.

Glass stigmata and shattered desire, grist

of a lifetime on the fringe. Cracks appear

and eggshell craze an essence too brittle to prevail.


The desert presses blind like thumbballs on glass eyes,

and age is a sentence writ in wire. At end we crave

acknowledgement. If the world won’t see,

our own bodies must be fecund bearers, and spawn

the beauty of creation. But with one glass not yet full

and one reflecting ultimate betrayal, her last recourse

is to be ground too. Finish. Caustic down the gullet             

births oblivion, and supplants the sacred sympathy of glass.


Publication notes, with poem; 

Helen Martins was an outsider artist not fully recognised
by the art establishment of S Africa, though there are several books on her now
so her stature is growing. She doesn't quite fit standard definitions of
'artist' - she used black employees/friends to help her do the work, and she
copied a lot of her designs/symbols from things like jam jar labels and boot
polish lids. She lived in Nieu Bethesda, a village in the deep Karoo (central
desert) which probably still lives according to the precepts of the Bible, so
she was also socially an outsider, associating with black people.
She didn't start exploring glass and sculpture until her late 40s. She had a
small wooden cottage and a sandy yard, which is now a museum and the yard brims
with concrete and glass statues. With a Spong coffee grinder she ground coloured
glass, which she used to encrust numerous surfaces, like the windows of her
house, the entire walls and ceilings of some rooms, and some statues. She
stored the ground glass in preserving jars, and stacked them in her pantry
along with jars of preserved fruit. Fruit and glass are still there. (Slightly
macabre but she wasn't your run-of-the-mill house-wife.)
The owl is a dominant motif (hence The Owl House) as were religious subjects
and Boer women, but she was reasonably eclectic, threading the wire fence
surrounding her yard is with passages of Kahlil Gibran among others.
In failing health, at 76, she decided to kill herself and swallowed caustic
soda. Friends found her and got her to the hospital in the next town but she
died three days later.


© Dael Allison 2005


Published Hecate Winter 2005