Not many outdoor monuments are dedicated to both the imagination and the art of mosaic such as the spectacular Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in Escondido. The last major public work of the famous French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, this outdoor installation is the only American sculpture garden and a unique celebration of colors, forms and life. The inspiration for the garden can be found in the pre-Columbian mythology of California and Mexico, but also in the local cultures, customs, and history. Although it is populated with sculptures and artwork instead of thick flora, this garden is bursting with color and life, surrounded by a circular “snake wall”. The entrance is in the form of a maze, while the benches are placed along the outer rim. The majority of plants are located outside the walls, focused on local trees and bushes, complimenting the extravaganza of Niki de Saint Phalle’s project.
Creator of the Sculpture Garden – Niki de Saint Phalle
Sculptor, painter and filmmaker, Niki de Saint Phalle is one of the unique characters in the world’s history of modern art. Born in France in 1930, she had a difficult upbringing and struggled to make a career in the arts. After devising her “Nanas”, voluminous, colorful sculptures of women representing various moods or situations, her rise began, although she had no formal training in arts. These papier mache dolls became her commentary on the role of women in modern society, making Niki one of the first outspoken female artists who infused her work with a feminist tone. Her idiosyncratic visual style is sometimes defined as “outsider art”, although this is not accepted by everyone. Versatile and creative as she was, she collaborated with many major progressive artists of her time, from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to John Cage and Jean Tinguely, whom she later married. Joyous and full of color, her work is strongly underlined with serious undertones and social thematics.
Niki de Saint Phalle never limited herself on one technique alone. She created her sculptures out of papier mache, ceramics, and other materials, while mosaic became one of her favorite techniques over time, especially in her later works. Public works were also her specialty, as were sculpture gardens, as she turned out to be quite the visual narrator. Interestingly, Queen Califia’s garden was not her first sculpture park. Inspired by Gaudi, Saint Phalle created the famous Tarot Garden in Tuscany in 1998, showing her propensity towards symbolism and mythologies.
After years and years of dedication to sculpture, outdoor art, and visions, Niki de Saint Phalle devised the idea for the Queen Califia’s Magical Circle Garden in San Diego, her residence of choice during her last years of life. The round, 120 ft wide, the garden was financed by the artist in entirety, while the land, site preparation, and maintenance were provided by the City of Escondido.
The Mythical Queen Califia
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is located inside a 12-acre natural resort in the Iris Sankey Arboretum, within the Kit Carson Park. Surrounded by the 400 feet wall whose height varies from 4 to 9 feet, space is filled with imaginary beings, featuring serpents, totems and other animal spirits, all executed in larger-than-life scale and finished in mosaic. The surrounding “snake wall” got its name from the many serpent sculptures that crawl over it, all covered in different, colorful patterns. The maze inside it gives a contrast with black, white and mirror tiles, hiding a central courtyard inside the park.
Encircled within the wall and the maze, there are ten main sculptures of the park, Queen Califia, the fountain and eight totems, drawing much of their aesthetics from the Mesoamerican visual culture.
Central to the idea of this garden, the sculpture of the imaginary, mythical Queen Califia is encased in gold glass armor, featuring a large five-legged Eagle Throne. In the very middle of the space is the Egg Fountain, adorned with gold, representing Queen Califia’s magical rule over the sea and the symbol of the cycle of life.
Surounded by eight totem figures, the garden grows into a magical kingdom populated with fantastical creatures. These sculptures are wrapped in symbols, representing real or mythical creatures and animals, mixing the histories of several indigenous cultures of Southern California and creating a new world.
The materials used for the garden mosaics reflect the idea of the local history. While the wall is generally covered in Mexican pebble stones, sculptures are decorated with thousands of hand-cut glass, ceramic and stone tiles. There are portions of ceramic plaques or tiles also on the wall, featuring Native American symbology and hand-prints and signatures of the artist’s team and family. The imposing sculpture of Queen Califia is decorated with mirrored glass tiles, and the fountain is enhanced with gold-leaf. The park is not only locally-colored but green as well since the fountain is controlled by a solar energy pump.
Even though they look as if made of stone, the sculptures, wall, and maze are all made of polystyrene in a polyurethane skin, with fiberglass coating formed over a steel armature. The work on the park began in 2000 when Saint Phalle was still alive, but after her passing in 2002, it was overseen by her granddaughter and team members until it was completed in October 2003.
Covered in different sizes, shapes, and types of tiles, Queen Califia’s Magical Circle Garden represents a unique work of public art, completely executed in mosaic. It is obviously inspired by Gaudi and admittedly infused by indigenous mythology, but the idea behind dressing such a creating entirely in tiles, as well as the shape-invention, color selection, and artistic harmonization, go all to the artist, Niki de Saint Phalle. What we are left with is an everlasting monument to animate all of those who visit, but also to stand as a reminder that the ancient technique of tile art is far from forgotten.
Enter the Magical Circle of Mosaic
A visit to the Queen Califia’s Magical Circle Garden can be a great day trip, especially for those with children. Due to recent needs for repairs, the space has a specific working schedule, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and every second Saturday, in the morning hours (please, check the official site for more information). The entrance is free of charge, while the inspiration the children, but also the mosaic-loving adults can get from this experience is definitely priceless.