A not-so-secret garden
Escondido, Calif., unveiled a sculpture garden in December that is the new centerpiece of the city’s cultural tourism attractions. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle features nine freestanding mosaic sculptures and a tiled maze designed by French-American artist Niki de Saint-Phalle.
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is located in the Iris Sankey Arboretum of Escondido’s Kit Carson Park. Escondido donated the land for the project after de Saint-Phalle approached the city with the idea for the garden in 1999. De Saint Phalle — who often financed her projects from the revenue of her designer perfume — paid for all materials and construction. The garden took four years to complete, but de Saint Phalle lived to see only 95 percent of the sculptures built before dying of lung disease, which she contracted from the fumes of materials used in her early work.
De Saint-Phalle first gained notoriety in the 1960s for her work with the “new Realists” movement and her buxom females sculptures — called Nanas. She is best known, however, for her Tarot Garden — a sculpture garden similar to the Queen Califia project, though on a slightly grander scale — located in the Tuscan region of Italy.
When de Saint-Phalle moved to San Diego in the 1990s, she quickly found new inspiration for her artwork in the origins of California and the myth of Queen Califia, from which the state got its name. Califia was said to be the strong queen of an island of black Amazonian women, and de Saint-Phalle combined that myth with Native American, Polynesian and South Asian influences to design a colorful and fantastical sculpture garden for Escondido.
Visitors enter the garden through a stone wall that features sculpted two-headed snakes slithering atop the stone, and then they work their way through a black-and-white tiled maze. Once inside, people can climb on and around eight totems, ranging from 11 to 21 feet tall, that surround a 22-foot-tall sculpture of Queen Califia on her Eagle Throne. An egg-shaped fountain is featured in a small domed temple under the five-legged eagle throne. A variety of materials were used to create the sculptures, including tumbled rock, ceramic tiles, colored glass, agates, turquoise, malachite, abalone, lapis, tiger’s eye and petrified wood.
Escondido’s Building Department and Public Art Commission monitored the construction team, which worked from de Saint-Phalle’s designs and was directed by her friend Lech Juretko of El Cajon, Calif.-based Art Mosaic. Pierre Marie LeJeune, an associate of de Saint-Phalle’s, designed the egg fountain and benches for the garden. Los Angeles-based La Paloma built the armatures for the snake wall and Califia sculpture, while Art Mosaic applied the mosaics.
Escondido paid for the landscaping around the garden, site grading, operations and land acquisition. The location was chosen for its semi-rural setting, so that the garden would feel like an oasis tucked into the desert-like landscape. The city has created an endowment fund to cover the costs of busing Escondido students to the garden.
Originally the garden was scheduled to open in October, but the event was cancelled because of the proximity of wildfires in the area. On Dec. 6, more than 100 people showed up to explore de Saint-Phalle’s garden and to participate in activities such as clay sculpting and storytelling.
Escondido’s Minghei International Museum is featuring an exhibit on de Saint-Phalle’s work until April, promoting interest in the artist’s contribution to the area. Susan Pollack, manager of Escondido’s public art program, says that the city is excited about the priceless art it now hosts and hopes that it will “continue to bring people into the city to experience all the other arts.”