The tower-shell snail teaches us how to be human

A whole bunch of Tower Shells

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.”

Nature’s spiral

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!

“Growing Home”

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.”

Not every bridge is famous.

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.

Bottoms-up

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.

The FIRST, First Avenue Bridge

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.

American Sampler

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

Quince Street Trestle

How pedestrian!

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

Suspended in time

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!

Climb aboard

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.”

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

Huge glass marbles

 

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.

Rodin’s “Poet and Muse”

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 on Eagle

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

Serpent Tree

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.

Notes/Credits

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.

Niki and Jean

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.