The Karoo sun illuminates the upturned women’s faces with brown dumpy bottle skirts and outstretched arms. You are standing in the fenced yard of The Owl House, a fine example of outsider art created by the recluse Helen Martins in Nieu-Bethesda.
Words by Sandy Woods. Images by Carl Grossmann.
On this winter’s morning, the yard is grid-locked with Miss Helen’s statues, tourists with cameras slung around their necks and scientists carrying bulky equipment.
Kneeling beneath a camel are Michelle Dye and Carl Grossmann, digital documentalists from the African Conservation Trust. The small dedicated team undertaking an experimental scan are one of a small number of organisations offering this expertise in South Africa. Michelle and Carl are highly skilled, experienced and passionate about the importance of 3D scanning in heritage documentation and archiving.
They are paying close attention to the Leica C10 scanner at their fingertips, which has been removed from its cumbersome tripod and placed in the dirt. The scanner is a non-descript, green and white plastic encased cube with a small rectangular LCD screen. Michelle uses a pen to press options on the screen, programming the movements of the laser inside. They are preparing to 3D scan the woman’s figure inches away from them. She sits untidily on the ground wearing a mosaic dress with finely crushed glass hair and one arm raised toward the sky.
As the C10 silently begins its work, Michelle stands and brushes the dust off her knees. She explains that once the exhaustive field work is completed, she will use her office computer to digitally line up and overlap the clouds of co-ordinated points that the scanner is recording. At this stage the grid of points, or point cloud, takes on a three dimensional appearance and by navigating around it using the mouse, one can focus on fine details or observe the object from the top, bottom, sides and back.
Using the 3D model exact life size replicas could be made of each figure. This will be of great value as breakages are common as the popularity of the small museum increases. Helen Martins and her assistant, Koos Malgas, used discarded items found in the town dump to create their figures in The Camel Yard and The Owl House. The brown dumpy beer bottles are frequently broken and impossible to replace since the current bottles are a different size. The rusting internal wire skeletons are collapsing and as each figure is repaired, the original detail and texture disappears under the newly applied layer of concrete slurry. 3D scanning is a valuable tool for documenting sites and objects before they are damaged, altered or destroyed.
Displayed on the walls of their sunny Durban office are a haphazard collection of photos taken on field trips in remote, far-flung places; here Mapungubwe Hill, there a clear starry night with a silhouetted corbelled house in the fore ground. Michelle has two large computer screens balanced on her desk. Illuminated on the screen is an intricate, fine pattern of dots miraculously taking on an easily recognisable shape. With another click, the surface texture is superimposed and the glittering glass eyes of a concrete owl are in sharp focus on the computer screen.
I can almost feel Miss Helen standing beside me with her grey hair and wrinkled hands, nodding her warm approval.