Escondido, California: Queen Califia is generally conceded to be the creation of Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandian penned around 1500. In the novel, Califia – assumed to come from the Spanish “Califa” (Khalifa in Arabic or Caliph in English) – was the leader of a tribe of black Amazonians inhabiting the mythical Island of California. Califia raised an army of women and trained griffins and sailed off to assist in the defense of Constantinople.
Niki de Saint Phalle (sculptor, painter, film maker) was born in 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine. The family soon moved to the U.S. where de Saint Phalle later attended New York’s Brearley School – from which she was expelled, in one version of the tale, after indulging her penchant for bright colors by painting all of the fig leaves on the school’s statuary red.
She subsequently attended Maryland’s Oldfields School, graduating at 17 years of age. At 18 she became a fashion model appearing on the cover of, among others, Life Magazine and Vogue; and she married – for the first time. She later lived in Majorca and became familiar with the work of Gaudi whose influence on her later work is apparent. She was never formally trained as an artist. Reportedly inspired by the pregnancy of her friend Clarice Price, wife of Larry Rivers, she became fascinated with the position of women in society and heroic women archetypes. Later in her life she was directed, for health reasons, to the dry climate of Southern California.
Now the pieces fall together. About 22 years ago Niki de Saint Phalle was commissioned to create the Magic Garden at Escondido’s Kit Carson Park – taking her inspiration from California’s natural and cultural history.
The garden is roughly circular, about 120’ across. It is enclosed by massive undulating serpents and is entered through a simple, low-walled, black, white and mirrored “maze.” Parents (and many children) can easily see over the walls; no one can get lost in its few turns. The sculptures, including the surrounding serpents, are covered with mosaics of glass and semi-precious stones in brilliant colors. The Garden incorporates indigenous desert foliage in planters on the serpents’ backs and enclosures adjoined to the walls.
Unfortunately repeated vandalism challenged Escondido’s ability to maintain the installation. A few years ago the park was largely restored but now its open hours and days are restricted – so if you intend to visit, check the current schedule. For lack of funding, its permanence is in no way assured – so if you are in the region and have an interest, do not delay a visit.
When I first encountered the Garden, apparently looking stunned, I was approached by Marty Tiedeman. Tiedeman is a docent who has been involved in the regional art scene for many years. (Along with rich information on the Queen Califia installation, Tiedeman related a version of the red fig leaf story that was still more off-color.) While talking with Tiedeman over perhaps a half hour, families came and went – and adults and children alike were fascinated and delighted with the phantasmagoria and brilliant colors.
The central piece of the installation is ostensibly an “eagle” mounted atop by Queen Califia (together, about 20’ tall). At one time the eagle had a tail that extended to the ground and incorporated a stairway – to a platform overlooking the entire Garden. Its belly is tiled in a brilliant blue/purple flecked with stars and cultural symbols, and arches over a large, iridescent, golden egg which, when duly plumbed, was a fountain. Nonetheless, this “eagle” stands on five stout legs which, when juxtaposed with the original Califia story, has me convinced that this creature is a griffin – perhaps earlier named an eagle only in deference to the now-absent tail.
Other statues are in the forms of totem poles bedecked with spiders, snakes, birds, wings, beaks, and faces in various forms that seem universally to evoke laughter and delight. It is difficult to suppress a smile at the inventiveness and playfulness of the pieces here, and at the joy they engender in the children who clamber on its pieces.
Photos by Fred R. Cohen. Go to his website.
Niki de Saunt Phalle’s Queen Califia’s Magical Circle
Located in the Iris Sankey Arboretum
Kit Carson Park
3333 Bear Valley Parkway
Escondido, CA 92025