On a beautiful sunny, cloudless June day in San Diego, something amazing happened. Following our lunch on the patio, we left the door wide open to let outside breezes in. Suddenly, there was a fluttering—a shadowy silhouette against the stark white ceiling. A lone monarch butterfly had decided to pay us a summery afternoon visit. She flitted silently, exploring every nook and cranny—first the bookcase, then the pictures and knick-knacks on the shelves. She floated across the room with intention, lightly touching the corner of the mantle, and then momentarily paused for a short rest on the back of a chair.
Cheryl was in the room at the time, reclining on the sofa—a post-lunch lull. She sighed when the butterfly gracefully swooped to clear the door frame, and then watched the antics as she worked her way across the room. Suddenly our unannounced guest landed directly in front of Cheryl’s face and seemed to be staring, unblinkingly at her. Wide-eyed, Cheryl lay nearly breathless, not wanting to make a sound or sudden move—butterflies are notoriously shy, you know. Could it be that this graceful visitor had a message to deliver?
Have you ever had a monarch butterfly visit you in your home—in your face? It seems pretty rare, so we felt both curious and honored. We decided reflect on the possible meaning of this impromptu encounter. First of all, the monarch butterfly is among the most beautiful of all the butterflies. Their name, Monarch, Is fitting. If there was ever a monarchy over all butterflies, one of these beauties would surely be appointed Queen over the entire Kingdom.
For millennia, cultures around the world have recognized the grace and beauty of the butterfly. Their presence has been considered a sign that we, as humans, might be on our right path, and will most probably achieve our chosen goals. They are also viewed as delicate messengers announcing an impending rebirth or spiritual transformation—arriving to help us navigate through life or simply nudge us onward along the path already chosen. Some say that they’re drawn to particular people by a specific vibration, a subtle energy that emanates from their chosen companion.
Our conclusion: this was a day of joyful reflection and celebration—perhaps it was a time for preparation, signaling some profound events about to unfold. As we continued talking about the brief visit, our thoughts, too, began to take flight. Our conversation became more playful and lighthearted. Imaginations fluttered, then soared effortlessly through the air, floating high above a beautiful landscaped urban canyon. After a few minutes of ideas, dreams and exploration, we touched ground again. All of a sudden, the world seemed more open, inspiring, expansive and exciting!
Fortunately, our butterfly-friend made an entrance that could not be ignored. We concluded that the message had, in fact, been received! We wonder, though, how many silent messengers fly close by, unnoticed every day. What clues have we missed by being too busy, too oblivious to our surroundings to note subtle changes? If nothing else, our colorful friend reminded us to watch more carefully, listen more intently and stay open, hopeful and engaged. She nudged us to pay closer attention to quiet information available to us. Surely, when it comes to magical insights and majestic influence, the Monarch definitely rules!
The saying goes that all you really need in this life is love, a therapist and a good friend, not necessarily in that order, or even all of them at the same time. The “Big Three.” It’s dynamic. For us the love can be a person, a thing or an activity; the therapist can be a religious leader, counselor or healer; and the friend can be a spouse, family member, acquaintance or a beloved pet. In fact, the best of times is when love, the therapist and the friend ARE experienced, all three together. And once in a great while, it’s possible to have all three wrapped into one—for example, in the form of that special little dog. She can be a trusted confidant, someone who will never disclose a single word you’ve said. She can deliver fur therapy that dries the most mournful tears. She might follow every step you make, mirroring the very essence of friendship. To imagine Life without the “Big Three” is to ask the question: How long can you hold your breath under water?
Not that long.
Our morning walk/exercise takes us by a beautiful sculpture that always makes us smile. The name is “Flame of Friendship” by the famous Mexican artist/sculptor Leonardo Nierman, located between the Marina and the Convention Center in San Diego. It was dedicated in 2000 as an expression of the warm friendship that exists between the US and Mexico—a centuries-old partnership, an intertwining of cultures, faiths and the very definitions of the two countries.
Friendship is a fundamental human need that finds expression at many levels: personal, interpersonal, cultural and national, creating bonds that we might literally guard with our very lives. Why? Because our humanity depends on them. We share a fundamental human need for warmth and connection. May the Flame of Friendship! burn ever more brightly.
You might be interested in few other stories and songs about different expressions of friendship that have been meaningful for us over the years. Following are three musical stories that begin painting a picture of what friendship/love can look like in the everyday and how simple actions can instantly plumb the depths of feeling, emotion and life itself.
Hidden bits of history are embedded within the new.
Inside new buildings and structures of any large city we find traces of grandeur, clues to a vibrant, distant past. Days-gone-by are tucked in and amongst new forms. We love the diversity and visual interest that’s generated when styles and eras get juxtaposed against each other—natural companions like a grandmother and toddler out for a walk in the sun.
When we moved to San Diego, we wanted to explore and learn all we could about how the city has cared for its elderly buildings—that tells much about who a town’s people really are. We couldn’t think of a better place to start than the old majestic theaters. We wondered: Where are they, and how have they been preserved for future generations? Here’s what we discovered.
In the beginning.
San Diego philanthropist John D. Spreckels changed the face of the city forever, with his great idea—a “Eureka!” moment. Just after the turn of the century, he decided to build a state-of-the-art theater downtown on Broadway. Completion was planned to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal and the Balboa Park Exposition in honor of that opening. The theater was also planned to have the same number of seats as the year—1915. Spreckels hired architect Harrison Albright to design the interior in the ornate Baroque style, while the exterior was clad in the fashionably new architectural terra cotta. Their deadline, however, didn’t hold. They completed the project and opened three years ahead of schedule, on August 23, 1912. So, did they change the seat count or does the theater have 1915, as planned? That will remain as a good trivia question.
The Spreckels Theater is especially important because it was the venue that made large scale performing arts possible in San Diego. Originally, the theater presented live theatrical productions since it preceded “talkies” and the creation of Hollywood, as we now know it. By 1931, everything had changed in terms of cinema-making and it was converted into a first-run movie-house to compete with the Balboa, Fox and California theaters, which had been built in the two decades following the Spreckels first opening, The city was growing fast!
Long after the decline of the Hollywood movie extravaganzas, in 1976 the venue was renovated to once again accommodate live performances as it still does to this day. The Spreckels Theater has proudly been in continuous operation as a theater for over 100 years with the exception of brief periods for renovation.
In 1975, the Spreckels Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to operate as a state-of-the-art theater for the enjoyment of San Diegans and visitors alike.
The Balboa Theater is the quintessential Spanish Colonial movie palace.
The historic Balboa Theater opened in 1924, twelve years after the Spreckels. Designed by William H. Wheeler in the Mission/Spanish Revival style, the theater holds a special place in the hearts of San Diegans, since its name has always been tied to the local history.
After years of struggle trying to save the old theater which had been vacant for over 20 years, it was finally added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. An important milestone was finally reached when after years of waiting, the city decided to fully fund its future. Following a careful renovation focused on restoring it to the original grandeur, it reopened as a performing arts venue in 2008 and has been welcomed back as a favorite performance location. The old theater holds a special sentimental attachment for those who have grown-up in the area and the many visitors every year.
The 1339 seat Balboa Theater originally housed the famous Wonder Morton organ. But, the theater was in such poor condition that the city officials decided to move it for safe-keeping. It went to its new home, The Fox Theater in 1929. From that time, the Balboa functioned without an organ. After the Balboa was restored in 2009, it was then in need of another organ. The city searched for an appropriate replacement. In Pennsylvania, they finally found another 1929 Robert Morton organ, similar to the original—one of only four in the entire world. The organ was relocated to San Diego, where it was refurbished and rededicated. The original Balboa Theater organ still resides in the Old Fox Theater, which is housed inside the Copley Symphony Hall.
The Balboa Theater is also fortunate to be located at a prominent location within the city. It is adjacent to the new Horton Plaza Park, the historic Irving Gill Fountain in the park, and the historic USS Grant Hotel—all on Broadway!
Copley Symphony Hall—Old Fox Theater
That sly Fox!
The Fox Theater first opened to patrons on November 8, 1929 with almost 3,000 seats, over twice the size of the Balboa Theater. Much has happened since then as the movie industry has gone through many changes resulting in closure of the Fox to the public in 1975. It was then converted for live productions in 1977, and reopened as a short-term use solution. Thinking that the movie palaces were relics of the past, city leaders and developers turned their focus elsewhere, even considering demolition as perhaps the best alternative.
Interest in building an office tower in place of the theater sparked both controversy and creativity. But what about the Fox Theater? The creative solution was to completely strip away the exterior and build a new structure around it without disturbing the original theater within.
In 1985, the old Fox Theater reopened with a new name, the Copley Symphony Hall—an amazingly beautiful restoration, tucked deep inside the new office/hotel/parking tower. Imagine the old Fox Theater as the core of the structure with everything else built completely around it. No matter what goes on in our modern world, the Fox is protected and preserved. Nothing impacts the theater, since it is cocooned inside the Symphony Hall structure. The Fox has its own foundation and a buffer of space around on four sides with its own roof—literally nothing touches it. The solution was a stroke of genius, creating a true win/win for everyone involved.
While the modern work was underway outside the theater, there was a concurrent project to completely renovate and restore the inside of the theater to meet current codes and return it to its glory days of 1929, as accurately as possible. Fortunately, the company that originally painted the Fox was still in business for the 1985 restoration. So, of course they were hired again 56 years later to completely reproduce the authentic opening-day color scheme. They repainted the faded surfaces, the colors popped, and the Old Fox was revived—brought back to life for a new purpose in all of its historical beauty.
Today, during special performances, the “Wonder Morton” organ rises from its secret hiding place below the stage. The projectionist also casts images on a lowered screen, using the two original carbon-arc projectors for special showings. The combination of the sound of the organ along with the images, creates quite a breath-taking experience! We think that multi-media is a modern invention, yet at the revived Fox Theater, we get a glimpse into the creative imaginations of times gone by.
Although the grand marquee is now gone, it was a necessary compromise to save the essential parts of the theater. It would be interesting to have that fantastic piece of illuminated art positioned over the new entrance—in stark contrast to the contemporary tower—an exciting signal that a surprise awaits within: The Old Fox theater, that movie-land jewel of another era is hidden safely inside!
The beautiful Fox Theater is our grand finale. We hope you enjoyed this little tour of the “Majestic Theaters of San Diego.” If you get the chance, visit them in person—there’s nothing like seeing the real thing!
Note: The featured black and white photo at the beginning of this story is in honor of the “New California Theater” of San Diego, which opened in 1919. At the time, it was called the “cathedral of the motion picture,” with ceilings of gold leaf, murals throughout and its own Wurlitzer organ. The original beauty has since faded as neglect has taken its toll. Hopefully, some day soon, it will see its own restoration and resurgence back into the main stream of San Diego’s artistic lifestyle—a dream that is long overdue!
You might also enjoy another story about discovery, recovery and conservation called “Water’s Edge.” However, instead of architecture in a city, it dives into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the beautiful Italian island of Elba. Join us for an excursion into the “deep blue” with a side trip into our own psychologies.
How do we know that? Just listen! Aside from English, and of course Spanish, you’ll hear Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Cambodian, Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese and Tagalog, along with other Pacific Island and Asian languages. You’ll notice that the air is laced with spoken melodies of French, Italian, Portugese, Armenian, Persian, Greek, German, Russian, Polish, Hindi, Arabic and Hebrew. Various African words and phrases also float about, intermixed with Navajo and other Native North American languages as well. Some, of course, are more prevalent than others, but they all have their day in the California sun, and they all have their “say.”
In addition to hearing the multi-cultural diversity, you can now actually see it, thanks to Jaume Plensa. He is a world-renowned sculptor from Barcelona, who has bestowed his sculpture to San Diego, representing his interpretation of the “Soul” of the city. His multi-lingual expression graces the corner of Broadway and Pacific Highway, just outside the new Pacific Gate Tower. The work is an every-day reminder of the importance of diversity in creating who we all are—together.
The human figure, titled “Pacific Soul,” appears to be crouched down, gazing west into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. The figure seems to grasp a knee with each hand, adding tension to an otherwise serene form. About this work, Plensa explains, “The ocean is always in movement, always changing; we never know precisely where a drop of water will go, or where it has been before. It is filled with potential.” San Diego is much like its ocean companion—always changing and full of possibility. Serenity and tension co-exist.
As you approach the imposing figure, you may be drawn to step inside. As you stand there, an infant in a womb, centered in the body, just imagine the magnitude of the idea—The life-giving waters of the Pacific are being drawn upward through the massive “roots” of the sculpture, giving strength and sustenance to anyone inside. We have a sense of being forever linked to the sea. As a baby is linked to its mother, we too are directly connected to the vast ocean beyond.
The brilliant blue sky creates stark contrast as we gaze upward. Woven together are seemingly random sweeping white ribbons and a variety of shapes. Quickly, letters come into view. These are the lines and figures that enclose us. The myriad diverse letters are gathered from many languages heard within and around the city. Words seem to float in the very air we breathe. You become, and remain an integral part of this bustling metropolis whether living here or just visiting. You can feel the ocean breeze wafting past you, like a balmy current through a screen door on a warm summer day. You are changed.
You begin to understand that your very presence makes you part of Plensa’s multi-cultural “Pacific Soul.” In addition to becoming part of the sculpture, you are also part of the unique, evolving and diverse collective we call San Diego.
We wrote another story and song about diversity in 2011, called “Layers” that you might enjoy reading. Instead of the warm San Diego sun, we were inspired by the hills of Tuscany, where centuries layer upon each other to create a rich history and incredible landscape. That layering deepens individual lives, as well as the texture of generations, forming unmatched magical diversity.
The little turret-shell/tower-shell is the home of the common sea snail. They’ve spent millions of years perfecting the art of home-making and now they’re finally ready to pass their secrets on to us. Shhh—Here’s how it works: We civilized folk think in terms of “time-lines,” past, present and future—an abstraction of our lives. It’s easy to become untethered to those strand-ed “life lines.”
The sea snail, on the other hand, thinks about “time spirals” that become tangible, functional objects—literal home-making. Every day, they are laying down new increments of a continuous spiral that will demarcate, protect and give meaning to their life. There’s never a question about where they started, where they are now, or where they’re going. Life is a tower. Life is a shell!
Artist/sculptor Joe O’Connell understands the lesson of the “tower-shell snail” very well. However, he also knows that the sea snail’s secret is so simple that it’s actually hard to convey to humans. Fortunately, he speaks a unique language that can communicate the story quickly and powerfully—spoken in a way that everybody understands the world around, all 7.6 billion of them. Art!
In 2018, Joe got the chance to speak to the world through his art of monumental sculpture, at a project in San Diego, California. Right smack-dab in the middle of a modern day “piazza” at the Park 12 Collection, he quietly placed his statement called “Growing Home,” for all to see—and what a beautiful story he tells. He speaks of people and their city in a way that even a sea snail would understand. This modern-day fable is told in the form of a tower-shell. We suddenly see ourselves like slow-moving sea creatures, rather than fast and frantic. We are methodically creating events that we instinctively lay down in a spiral day by day—building a beautiful soaring form around ourselves that literally becomes the shell/evidence of lives well lived. We magically become master-builders within a universe of master-builders. Meaning-makers on a grand and heroic scale. Most assuredly, we are spiraling down and growing home!
You might also be interested in another story with music that we wrote some years ago called “Homecoming.”
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t all equally important. In fact, the smaller they get, the more “pedestrian” they become, and in some ways, more important. Why? Because they make a real difference for local people in their every-day lives. Neighborhood bridges get built because individuals make it a priority, teaming up to create change on behalf of a community. Shared necessity. Common Good. That’s a beautiful thing!
San Diego has always been at the heart of local bridge-building. When you create a city on top of many canyons, spans become a priority. Following are some examples of local bridges that emerged out of ingenuity, persistence and community action, linking areas or locations that would otherwise be forever split apart. Bridging becomes a sacred human act. Following are three very different examples to consider:
First Avenue Bridge
Looking up from Maple Canyon.
The best place to observe the vehicular/pedestrian First Avenue Bridge is not on top, but rather, from below. Take the canyon trail down to the bottom. Wow! What a gorge! To go from one side of the canyon to the other would be quite a trek. Obviously a bridge was needed to connect the two sides. The canyon was actually disrupting the natural flow of everyday life, separating neighbors from one another. So the locals petitioned the city to construct it in the first place. From below, you can see the result of their request—a beautiful steel lattice structure spanning the gap.
Here, you’re looking at the original “People’s Bridge,” a modest span to meet the need, built in 1911 as a relatively quick and light-weight solution to the problem. It definitely worked for 20 years. Then, it was time to get serious, so the test-bridge was replaced with the permanent version—the one we know today. The crossing was here to stay, and that was a huge victory!
So now, we actually have the new improved version of that 1931 replacement bridge. It has become part of the historic fabric of the city, deserving a $12.7 million make-over. It was completely restored in 2010 to it’s original color and details, looking pretty much like it did when first completed some 90 years ago.
This restored edition of the bridge is truly a piece of Americana. It’s a great example of a steel arch bridge from the early 1900s—the only one in San Diego, and one of only a few left in California. Structurally, it includes about every trick in the book—a real “sampler” of 20th century steel construction. All of the pieces were made and then completely assembled on the floor of a midwestern fabrication plant, then dismantled for shipment to San Diego where it was reconstructed as it is today. The bridge is 463 feet long, 104 feet high and carries nearly 10,000 vehicles daily, linking both sides of the canyon—an essential connector!
Thanks to the many efforts of the local people, the First Avenue Bridge has become not only a time-saver, but also a money-maker and will hopefully remain an important San Diego landmark for many years to come. Power to the People!
Quince Street Trestle Bridge
The Quince Street footbridge crossing is one of the few wooden trestle bridges left in San Diego, and it’s a beauty! Originally constructed in 1905 and designed by a city engineer and local resident, George d’Hemecourt, this bridge allowed residents long-awaited access to the Fourth Avenue trolly line—spanning 236 feet at 60 feet above the canyon floor.
This bridge is also testimony to the power of the local people. After suffering years of damage to the wood structure and eventual collapse at one end, it was permanently closed and slated for demolition. That’s when resident Elinor Meadows led the way to have the structure designated a city landmark due to its unique construction. She persevered to victory in 1987 as the city finally agreed that it was an important part of the fabric and history of the city. After more than two years and $250,000, it reopened in August of 1990—revived, rehabilitated and ready to serve a new era of San Diegans.
Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
A bridge so special, it has at least three names.
This pedestrian bridge is so magical that it’s location defies naming. Some say it spans “Kate Sessions Canyon,” named after the revered San Diego horticulturalist. However, you can also find the trail under the bridge described as “Spruce Canyon Trail.” Or, you can find a sign declaring it to be “Arroyo Canyon.” For our purposes, we’ll just call it the “Suspension Bridge Canyon.” We will leave the definitive naming of its exact location “suspended” in time, just like the beautiful bridge.
Lay down on the canyon floor and observe the gentle motion of the bridge as it sways back and forth with a slow cool breeze. People find dangling their legs over the sides irresistible, letting themselves be lulled into a sort of twilight sleep by its gentle rocking. Ponder the simplicity of its design as it unobtrusively stretches across the canyon. Next, go up on top—it’s your turn!
The entrances are especially nice with the mature landscaping closing in around the steel cables. It makes it even more inviting and further accentuates the “secret” feeling you get when walking up to it—compelling. Pause for a minute before stepping out onto the wiggling walkway to notice the structure: the size of the cables, the towers and the connectors anchoring into the concrete—substantial and unique, surely one of the first “moving walkways” in the US?
So there you have it—three very different bridges that all do their jobs exceptionally well: all are functional, unique and grew from the needs of real people with local lives to live. Each one connects point A to point B, yet, creatively solving the problem in a very specific way. They bear the names of real people associated with them, those who cared enough to take action. Because of these bridges, we’re all a little bit closer to each other; more connected in unseen ways; a little bit better than we surely would be without them—bridging the gaps of our lives—bringing us together!
For a pedestrian experience of a different kind, you might enjoy a related post about an incredible hike that meanders around the city of Florence Italy—fantastic views from the surrounding mountains and valleys. The story is called “Renaissance Ring.”
My body felt like lead. “Who are you? What do you want.”
Somewhere in the stillness of the night, I became aware that I was dreaming. Or was I?
Okay. I’ll admit it. I had a really tough day! A good night’s rest is often the best remedy when the “toughness” sets in, so we hit the hay before the clock even turned to double digits—which is really early for us. We usually see every double digit, and witness single digits again before calling it a day.
I was sure that sleep would offer me an escape from the day’s stresses—at least I hoped so. Usually deep and satisfying sleep is often a refuge. This night began with promise, but shifted abruptly shortly after drifting off. I steadied my breathing and remember the sensation of falling asleep and releasing the day’s worries. I was right on track in the beginning. I shifted my weight to the far side of the bed to give Cheryl and our little doxy Sara more space. I was hovering in twilight sleep.Then suddenly I wasn’t!
My nightmare began. I dreamed I was asleep in a long narrow room totally unfamiliar to me. All alone on a skinny single bed, I was peacefully slumbering, laying close to the far corner of the room opposite the door. Suddenly, the door opened and someone or something entered. In the darkness with dim shadows I saw it silently moving toward me. It was a pale creature, formless, yet weighty. Startled, I had the urge to wake myself from this terrifying encounter. I tried to sit up, but couldn’t move either my legs or arms. They felt like lead. Still groggy, I called out, “Who is it and what do you want?” But my voice was as frozen as my arms and legs. From my lips I heard a low guttural, creepy sound something like: “Bhough eez zhit ehhhh bwaht zhou whwanndt?” Needless to say, there was no response from the silent intruder. I struggled again to get up and confront whatever it was, but it just kept floating/sweeping toward me as if sadistically enjoying my night-time terror.
The “Entity” swooped low at the foot of the bed, then circled around me moving ever-faster. Then it approached the corner of the bed close to my head. I could feel an icy cold air following its movement. I tried again and again to simply turn my neck to see it more closely, but all efforts were in vain. I absolutely could not. It sensed my growing fear and somehow hovered both behind and beneath me. Dimensions and depth blurred. In a fit of desperation, I mustered every ounce of strength, flailing in the air with my hands over my head trying to disrupt its sinister plan. In my last best hope, I took one great vanquishing swipe into the darkness.
I was jarred into semi-consciousness with the sound of a heavy steel lamp crashing onto the wood floor. I bolted upright, disoriented. At that point, the bright ceiling light came on, blinding me. Suddenly Iris was up and on high alert. She was awakened by the crash, but of course, the “Entity,” was nowhere to be found. The only source for the sound clearly fell to me. Boy, did I ever feel ridiculous!
At breakfast we gathered around the table to review the night’s events. I told Cheryl the sordid details of the intruder’s attack. Always objective and curious about dream symbolism, she matter-of-factly said that the “Something-Entity” may have represented my “Shadow” coming to challenge me. Would I control it or would it control me? My response was the same as always, to fight back. That is my fatal mistake, it seems. To disown the shadow sets up battle lines, as a war ensues that can never be won—by anyone. And, once again, I sadly end up attacking and destroying my own “LIGHT.”
Perhaps this little night-time vignette has finally made it clear. The only way for the LIGHT to prevail, is to INTEGRATE with the shadow. The power of the shadow is in its ability to provoke. If I’m not provoked, perhaps it will settle down. “Wholeness” is the only viable strategy. I finally got it! Then, I walked into town to the hardware store to get the necessary supplies to fix the broken table lamp.
Moral of the story: Rest assured, the LIGHT always wins in the end—eventually! Why not just let it happen sooner, rather than later?
Niki de Saint Phalle was a French-American artist/sculptor, born near Paris in 1930, and died in San Diego, California in 2002. She was a pioneer and celebrated the world over in feminist and monumental art. During the later years of her life she lived in San Diego, where there are many sculptural masterpieces that can be found throughout the area. If you aren’t already familiar with her work, please allow us to introduce you to Niki by way of this digital “tour” of her incredible legacy—culminating in her magical “Tarot Garden” in Tuscany, Italy. Shall we begin? Please follow us!
Mingei International Museum—San Diego
Balboa Park is legendary in San Diego.
It’s composed of 1200 beautiful rolling acres of urban green space. Several museums, gardens, theaters, and an outdoor amphitheater. Located on El Prado, in the heart of the park is the Mingei International Museum. Outside the entrance is Niki’s “Nikigator—a large lizard-like form made of colorful mosaics and mirrored pieces, inviting children to climb and explore the art from every possible angle. The materials, style and spirit of the sculpture is classic Niki, as we will see throughout this tour. Sit back, spark your imagination and enjoy!
Poet and Muse—San Diego
The second sculpture just outside the Mingei museum is called “Poet and Muse,” completed in 1998. This is a two figure piece, featuring a female angel or muse perched atop a male figure. The angel is a favorite motif that Niki uses again and again in her works to represent “feminine energy,” or unbounded creativity. The male form is a bit more buttoned-up in a suit, orange shirt and finished with a red tie.
We wonder if Niki was inspired by Rodin‘s Poet and Muse sculpture by the same name. Perhaps. Rodin also used the female figure as a muse, hovering over a male poet. But, Rodin‘s sculpture created around 1900 is a monochromatic, realisitic, serious carved marble statue, while Niki’s is bright, whimsical, and colorful, with shimmering mosaics. She always enjoyed making her art controversial and certainly used techniques that were unique to her, that others seemingly dared not do. Perhaps Niki was a bit of an idealistic artist contrarian.
Museum of Contemporary Art—La Jolla
Thirteen miles up the coast is La Jolla Village, where more Niki sculpture lives. Although it’s technically located “in the museum,” it’s actually in the garden area behind the museum which makes it easily accessible, as well as free! The first thing you’ll notice about this piece is that there are no mosaics. Big Ganesh is smooth and painted to be compatible with the previous Niki style, but is made of fiberglass instead—a technique that Niki used for many of her later works.
Ganesh(a) is one of the best known gods in Hinduism and is the remover of obstacles. Ganesh is depicted as having a human form, but with the trunk of an elephant, Traditionally, riding on a lowly mouse. Here, the mouse has gained independence and is actually standing alongside Ganesh—a companion in equal standing—the much preferred Niki interpretation
Sun God—University of California San Diego
Perched atop a topiary hedge, Sun God watches over a peaceful grassy area on the UCSD campus. Installed in 1983, it was Niki’s first outdoor commission in the US. The fourteen-foot bird is made of painted fiberglass and is carefully hidden from view within the greenery.
The Sun God is a deity celebrated in many myths and religions. In Hindu, it’s a Bird God, while Helios (Sun God) was the Greek version. Perhaps Niki’s Sun God blends these two entities into one magnificent creature.
In July, 2016, Sun God received a “make-over.” Restorers removed the original paint down to its base layer. The paint had suffered cracking due to its proximity to the ocean. After removing the surface damage and sanding the base coat, the sculpture received fresh acrylic paint. Finally, clear coats were added to seal out the harsh elements. The next restoration will most likely not be needed for another 20 years. We hope!
Kit Carson Park—Escondido
About 17 miles northeast of Sun God, is the town of Escondido. The park there is a delightful place for a picnic or family outing. But, in addition to being a destination, the park has the distinction of being the site of Niki‘s amazing sculpture garden—Queen Califia’s Magical Circle. It’s the last major international project that Niki created, which was completed in 2003. Nine sculptures are encircled within a serpentine wall. All of the pieces are mosaic with ceramic and mirrored tiles.
Queen Califia stands on the back of a five-legged eagle in the center of the garden. The surrounding totems include representations and symbols from many cultures, including Native American, Mexican and Pre-Colombian. As is typical of her style, Niki embraced and interpreted these cultures through her vivid imagination. The result is both fantastical and whimsical, yet always highly provocative. The playfulness of her work can sometimes hide the seriousness of her underlying messages.
Queen Califia was a warrior-queen who ruled the mythical island of California. The fictional character was invented by Spanish writer Garci Rodrigues de Montalvo around 1500. Califia’s story is the reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, probably representing the struggles between the two religions which had collided in Spain. Califia is also thought to be the preferred depiction of California, symbolizing bounty and beauty with an untamed nature.
Coming together—back in downtown San Diego
This is one of our favorite pieces. It stands majestically in a small garden, adjacent to the Convention Center on beautiful Harbor Drive. Niki’s design depicts the human challenge of integrating the opposing forces within all of us—the wholeness that comes from acknowledging the yin and yang of our existence.
The sculpture speaks to our ephemeral and delicate nature with the lacy design—almost invisible and translucent at times. The striking task she highlights is to bring the two halves of our existence together, integrating the shadow, depicted in the black and white portion of the sculpture, with the incredible bright colors reflecting the light of our limitless possibilities. The colors and contrasts on a sunny California day are awesome, much like the beauty of human form.
You may want to visit our “Behind the Scenes” story about Niki and her “Coming Together” sculpture—We call our story “Neither Black Nor White. Just click on the title.
Waterfront Park—San Diego
Three whimsical Niki sculptures grace Waterfront Park: Serpent Tree, Cat and Baseball Player, forming a trio of playful pieces that are irresistible to children and adults alike. The sculptures are on loan from Niki’s charitable foundation, but hopefully will be able to stay long term, making Waterfront Park the perfect location as their permanent home. Swing by and take a look, and maybe even play for a while!
The Tarot Garden—Tuscany, Italy
Niki discovered the incredible work of architect Antoní Gaudí in Barcelona Spain and was inspired to create her own magical park in Italy. She found a large wooded property to develop in southern Tuscany where she would design and build her fantastic creations—each year a new sculptural form emerged, peeking out above the tree-tops. This ongoing project was truly the culmination of her life’s work as an artist/sculptor.
Allow us to take you there by way of the following short video. The house you will see that’s literally built inside an enormous woman—Black Nana, as she called her, was Niki’s home where she would live while working every summer on her forever growing garden paradise. The Nana series was a favorite that Niki sculpted again and again, representing feminine energy. She created black versions, as well as white.
The mechanical sculptures shown in the Taro Garden video were done by Niki’s husband Jean Tinguely, a famous Swiss sculptor. They completed many projects together over their lifetimes.
The beautiful opening photo of Niki with a stylized snake painted on her face was first seen in the French Quarter magazine in an article called “Niki de Saint Phalle, French-American Heroine.”
Niki’s work can also be found around the world in Paris, France; Nice, France; Kiryat Hayovel Jerusalem, Israel; Stockholm, Sweden and Zurich, Switzerland. You will also find a number of artists with similar works that were influenced by her style.
Cheryl & Emerson
Quality time is great—but quantity time is what relationships are built on! Take time to partner.