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Queen Califia's Magical Circle is was made possible through an exemplary partnership between an artist of international stature and the City of Escondido.
Queen Califia's Magical Circle is one of the most important site-specific art projects realized anywhere in the United States in recent years. This achievement is all the more noteworthy because it has been made possible through an exemplary partnership between an artist of international stature and the City of Escondido, a municipality of relatively small size that has nonetheless funded an active and highly respected public art program since 1986.
Located in Kit Carson Park, Queen Califia's Magical Circle is the last major international project and only American sculpture garden created by internationally acclaimed French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. It is the largest American collection of Saint Phalle's whimsical work with nine large-scale structures.
The garden, like the state itself, takes its name from the legendary black Amazon queen, Califia, who was believed to rule a terrestrial island paradise of gold and riches "on the right hand of the Indies." The legend was first popularized in the 16th century romance novel, Las Sergas de Esplandián, which received wide circulation in Spain. Geologist John McPhee recounts the tale in his book Assembling California (1994), which Saint Phalle read and drew upon as a source for her initial ideas.
The imposing mosaic sculpture of Califia herself (11 feet tall), an archetype of feminine power and strength, commands the center of the garden. Clad in gold armour, she holds a small bird aloft while standing astride a monumental eagle (13 feet tall). Openings between the bird's massive legs lead visitors into a small domed "temple" decorated with cosmic symbols as well as painted ceramic plaques that were originally designed for The Tarot Garden in Italy. A golden, eggshaped fountain occupies the middle of the space - a reference to Califia's magical reign over the oceans as well as to the theme of birth, death and transformation, which recurs throughout Saint Phalle's considerable body of work.
The garden's outside diameter measures 120 feet and is encircled by an undulating wall across which slither large, playful serpents decorated in colorfully patterned mosaics. The Snake Wall has one entrance into the garden - a maze-like passageway whose walls and floor are also decorated in bold patterns of black, white and mirrored tiles. This gateway "announces that you are crossing a threshold into a new magical world - the world of your past, your roots, your land, your unconscious dreams," observed Marcelo Zitelli, the artist's curator and longtime assistant.
In planning the garden, Niki de Saint Phalle immersed herself in regional history and myth. They became "springboards to create imaginative creatures which celebrate the diversity of life," said the artist, "as well as those factors which have played a large role in southern California [including the Spanish, Mexican and Southwestern Indian cultures]."
Eight large totemic sculptures (ranging in height from eleven to twenty-one feet) surround Queen Califia. They are adorned with stylized monsters, protective deities, geometric symbols, crests, skulls, humans and various animals that once played vital roles in the lives of the people and are still endowed with sacredness and special powers. Of particular importance in the garden is the eagle, distinguished by his extraordinarily high flight, which brings him nearer to the sun and in closer proximity to the gods than any other creature. Figuring in both pre-Conquest Mexican legend and Native American imagery, it can also be seen in three of Saint Phalle's best-known sculptures - The Firebird (part of The Stravinsky Fountain in Paris), The Sun God (1983) at the Stuart Collection on the campus of the University of California at San Diego and The Sun (Card No. 19) at The Tarot Garden.
Queen Califia's Magical Circle bears the brilliant, unique mosaic ornamentation that is an unmistakable part of Saint Phalle's later work. "The garden uses a far greater diversity of mosaic materials gathered from around the world than seen in any of her other large-scale projects," said Lech Juretko, who has directed Saint Phalle's mosaic workshop since 1994. "Here, Niki personally selected dozens of varieties of glass in differing shapes, color, hue, translucency and degrees of reflection. For the first time, she also used a wide assortment of polished and tumbled stones such as travertine, agates, quartzes and veined turquoise." The results are magical and ever changing, as the movement of light, wind, color and reflections continually transform the garden.
Queen Califia's Magical Circle is located in the Iris Sankey Arboretum in Escondido's Kit Carson Park. The park's entrance is five minutes from the Via Rancho Parkway exit of I-15 at the intersection of Bear Valley Parkway and Mary Lane; then follow signs to parking. Admission is free but hours vary. Visit the Website to find out when the installation is open to the public.
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