Looking at Niki de Saint Phalle's sculptures in no way implies merely standing at a respectful distance and appreciating its forms and colors. Not at all. Looking at Niki de Saint Phalle's fantastical creatures, with their voluptuous shapes and rainbow-colored mosaic surfaces, is to be caught off-guard. It is to get overwhelmed by their exuberance, to lower one's defense system and to be given, even for a moment, the forgotten happiness of a child playing in a sandbox.
Driving to Escondido to find the recently completed sculptural garden by this artist was an adventure in and of itself: first south on the 405 all the way to Oceanside, and then heading inland through the most idyllic scenery until finding, eventually, a remote, well-hidden park at what seems to be the edge of the world. I guess that's why the city is called Escondido, which means "hidden" in Spanish.
Niki de Saint Phalle was born in France, but brought up and educated in the United States. Most of her adult life, however, was spent in Europe: first as a model and then as a painter, sculptor and filmmaker. In the mid-70's, she famously collaborated with her husband, Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, on the Stravinsky fountain next to the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Its panoply of contraptions, made by Tinguely, from moving rusty metal parts, is spiced up by Niki de Saint Phalle's wild array of brightly colored - even gilded - sculptures. Since then, she has created enormous gardens in Italy and Israel, and had numerous commissions and exhibitions all over the world - including the opening of the Niki Museum in Japan, dedicated exclusively to her art.
On the advice of her doctors, the artist spent the last years of her life here in Southern California, with its climate being ideal for her health. Since moving to La Jolla in 1994, she was working on what turned out to be her last project, "Queen Califia's Magical Circle". There is no doubt in my mind that this large, mirage-like circular garden - with its towering, fantastical sculptures - is destined to become the tourist attraction for smart and adventurous travelers.
My favorite element of this magical circle is its 400 foot-long wall with huge snakes lying protectively on top of it. Their skin is covered with a mosaic of broken tiles and semi-precious stones, including blue lapis, green malachite plus tiger-eye, abalone, agate and even petrified wood. But it is not only the exotic materials that stops you in your tracks, it's how she uses them in a dizzying variety of patterns - like Italian craftsmen laying a mosaic floor in a Medieval cathedral.
Entering the garden and walking through and around the totem-like sculptures, even climbing them, I could hardly resist the temptation to touch the shimmering mosaic covering their surface. I'm sure that the artist, who died in 2002 at the age of 71, wouldn't have had it any other way. Watching the kids and adults running around, hugging and playing with her sculptures, I felt the spirits of Niki de Saint Phalle's precursors, Spanish artist Antonio Gaudi and Italian immigrant Simon Rodia smiling down on us.
Queen Califia's Magical Circle - Niki de Saint Phalle
9 a.m. to sunset daily, admission free
Kit Carson Park, Iris Sankey Arboretum
Escondido, CA 92025
From I-15 Via Rancho Parkway exit Right onto Via Rancho Parkway/Bear Valley Parkway. At 4th light, turn left onto Mary Lane at the Kit Carson Park sign. Follow the signs to parking.