Saturday, March 16, 2013

French born sculptor's gift enhances Escondido park

Queen Califia's Magical Circle offers a colorful escape.
Story by Christene Meyers
Photos by Bruce Keller

     Days ago, we went down the rabbit hole.
No, not with Alice, but with Niki.
     It was marvelous! Part of me is still there.
     We happened upon Queen Califia's Magical Circle on a driving trip. The magnificent creation of the late French artist Niki de Saint Phalle is quietly dazzling.
      Picnic and puppies in tow, we were looking for a place to lunch within an hour of San Diego.  We found it in Escondido's beautiful Kit Carson Park, named after the famed frontiersman.  We strolled the grounds with the Yorkies, passing two guys playing frisbee golf.
   They paused to pet the pups, chat and reveal that they lived nearby.
        "Are you going up the trail?" one asked. "It will blow your mind.  Some eccentric French lady did this crazy sculpture thing. It's a trip. Just follow the trail."
The African queen Califia, at top and back, inspired
Niki de Saint Phalle's sculpture garden in Escondido.
    "Crazy sculpture thing" hardly describes Saint Phalle's magic. Queen Califia's Magical Circle is through the looking glass and beyond.
     Named after a legendary black Amazon warrior queen, it is a treasure not to be missed.
     Saint Phalle obviously was a smart, dramatic and inspiring artist.  Her California garden tells a story -- of California's mythic, historic and cultural roots.  Nine large-scale sculptures surrounded by a serpentine wall and maze entryway entice the stroller inside. Appropriately, the amazing creation stands on grounds originally inhabited by Indians of the acorn culture. Surely the artist knew this!
     Once you're in, you'll want to spend a couple hours studying this brilliant and colorful gift.  It incorporates women, jungle creatures and other elements, with thousands of precisely placed tiles, stones, pieces of glass and breathtaking mosaics.
Cookie delights in the garden, patting polished stones 
of an intricate mosaic. It's impossible not to want
to touch! The garden is both sensuous and tactile.
     It is obvious that the artist inhabited many worlds.  Like many creative people -- artists, musicians and writers -- she was part mystic, part realist, part mature woman and a bit of a tease.  She also had the capacity to live in a child's orbit, an enviable talent.
       Despite the sophisticated nature of the work, there is a childlike wonder to the place which makes me wish I'd known her.  Ron McPherson's company, La Paloma, fabricated many of the lush, large and evocative sculptures which were attracting old and young alike the day we visited. They invite touching!
 Keller, Nick and Nora relax below
the entrance to the sculpture garden.
     A little homework provided me with these facts:
     She was born in France in 1930, became a painter and sculptor in her youth, married twice and never lost her passion for art. By her twenties, she was gaining fame with her "Nanas," spectacular solo exhibitions celebrating happy, content and free women.
     Internationally known and a member of the influential Paris group, "Nouveaux Realistes," she designed major exhibits in Tuscany, Germany and France, including a world-famous fountain in the Georges Pompidou Center in her beloved Paris.   Lucky California was the beneficiary of her genius when her doctor advised moving to a mild climate in 1994.  The artist was ailing from the emphysema which took her life in 2002, but during her eight years in La Jolla, she designed the spectacular gift to southern California and the world.
      The gift lives in Escondido, a North county town that most San Diegans don't know well.
Niki's sense of the magical and mythical delight, flanked
by native trees and shrubs which the city planted. 
      I had no idea that this wonderful sculpture garden is tucked away in the nearly 300-acre park.  It's a wistful fact that Saint Phalle did not live to see its completion (she died before its opening in 2003) but it's comforting that she was involved in its installation from 1999 until her death. Her San Francisco based granddaughter sits as a trustee of this marvelous gift.
     "The artist donated it to the city," says Kristina Owens, Escondido's public arts administrator.  "She always wanted to have a sculpture garden in the U.S., and she loved southern California."
     It's ironic that these vibrant sculptures reside in a town whose name means "hidden" because the garden is not splashily advertised. Do people realize how extraordinary it is? How lucky we are?
          When one considers the fame and influence of the "new realists" and that Saint Phalle was one of this prestigious group, we should consider ourselves lucky to be within driving distance of her gift.  I was reminded of Gaudi's creations in Barcelona, or some of the imaginative projects of her contemporaries -- Christo, Yves Klein, and Jean Tinguely, her second husband.
 Ruth, left, and her daughter join Cookie -- new friends,
drawn to the Magical Circle by a talented French-born artist.
     Her sculptures make me smile -- and will you, too! The Escondido garden also makes me want to visit her European installations.  I will.
    Meanwhile, we can enjoy her buxom, colorful figures, her playful animals, joyous flowers and flirtatious snakes in the lovely environs of Kit Carson Park.
   The area is graced by native trees and shrubs.  Niki herself designed sculptural bench seating where one may enjoy the art and truly let it "sink in." Sadly, vandals have chipped away at some of the beauty and time has taken a toll. Some repairs are in order. And the vandalism has necessitated fencing.
  Niki wanted her creations to be viewed as "happy and free" and the garden inspires these feelings. While paying homage to imagination, California and the natural world, the garden also encourages discussion and family visits.  Escondido school children make regular pilgrimages, arranged by art teachers. We shared the space with a romancing couple playing classical guitar, and a grandma and her children. "This place is simply amazing. Amazing," she repeated. "Wonderful!"
    An endowment has been established to help maintain the gift.  Call 760 839-4331.  To donate, plan your trip, or learn more about Niki, go to:  
     Kit Karson Park also includes a wonderful aboretum and Iris Sankey Garden, an amphitheater, baseball field, picnic areas, tennis courts, ponds, hiking trails, a golf course and more. Truly a treasure for us all, a thoughtful mix of developed and natural land. Find the magic at 3333 Bear Valley Parkway, heading east then north off the I15. Good mojo awaits!
     Coming Wednesday: Birds, birds, birds. Whether on road trips to Montana's Beartooths, a picnic on the beach or hikes and sails around the globe, the feathered friends keep Cookie and Keller 
An egret poses behind ducks at
Kit Carson Park in Escondido.
company.  An homage to these feathered, winged tetrapods that surprise, delight and calm us.
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Remember to explore, learn and live!

1 comment:

  1. What a delightful narrative of your trip. One can feel the joy you guys had discovering Niki's sculpture park. May I please correct two facts in the blog: Niki was 35 when she started making Nanas (summer 1965), and the city did not "improve" the area by planting shrubs and integrating benches...these were all planned by Niki herself. The benches were designed by her artist friend and collaborator Pierre Marie Lejeune. Unfortunately, there's an issue of maintaining both the flora within and the sculptural elements by the city. :(