Arvada Center Blog

Outside Looking In – examining the artist featured in Arvada Center’s partner-production – “The Road to Mecca” from Creede Repertory Theatre

Owl House  Cat by Outsider Artist featured in Road To Mecca, Miss Helen Martins
Owl House cieling by Outsider Artist featured in Road To Mecca, Miss Helen Martins

Miss Helen Martins – a look at Outsider Art

Creative expression that originates outside the realm of “fine art” is often referred to as “Outsider Art”. This genre has roots in examining the art from the mentally ill, outcasts and societal rejects that have had no formal art training or education, but yet produce stunning, creative, and expressive artistic pieces across all media. The Outside Artist often creates from a compulsion to express or create and is devoid of the need for acknowledgement.

The latest production partnership between the Arvada Center and Creede Repertory Theatre – “The Road To Mecca” – features the story of a prominent South African Outsider Artist, Miss Helen Martins.

Martins, played by Christy Brandt in CRT’s “The Road To Mecca”, was an eccentric, reclusive Anglo Afrikaner who lived in the small, rural town of New Bethesda in South Africa from 1926-1976. Living amidst a strictly Calvinist community, and being a woman that was not interested in earthly or heavenly comforts, her neighbors and family looked on Miss Helen, as she was known, as an “ungodly”, “incorrigible” societal outcast. 1.

However, her creative expressions did have a deep sense of spirituality and religious reference. In addition to the statuary in “The Camel Yard” of what is now a national monument in South Africa, the rooms, walls, ceilings and windows of “The Owl House” were adorned with colorful imagery. The interior art of Martins’ house mostly had a “light theme” that is centric to a light source and was enhanced by either candlelight or natural sunlight with the use of light-capturing and reflective mirrors, decorated window panes and crushed glass bits.

Much of Martins’ exterior artwork consists of whimsical concrete statues of camels, owls, sheep, people, and shepherds, most of which face east. The eastward-positioning, perhaps pointing towards a Muslim Mecca, and Christianity-referenced characters of the statues, “loudly disturbed” her surrounding Calvinistic community.2 Martin had also developed a long-term creative partnership with a local sheepshearer who helped her build and design much of the concrete-and-glass statuary in “The Camel Yard”. Adding to the existing community conjecture, her close friendship with a black man in apartheid-era South Africa aroused much suspicion about the nature of their relationship.

Athol Fugard’s play “The Road To Mecca” is an intense personal drama that examines the contradiction of Miss Helen – the repression of convention, the realization of seclusion, and the expressive creativity that emerges from within. Although the story is steeped in segregation, suspicion, confrontation and creativity, this theatrical production demonstrates the very personal origin of creative expression – seen both in the subject of Miss Helen and in the CRT actors on stage.



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