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Queen Califia’s Magic Circle Mosaic Sculpture Garden – Niki de Saint Phalle – Escondido, California

This unusual sculpture garden was created by the late, internationally famous Niki de Saint Phalle. It is one of the four large-scale sculptural environments designed and built by the artist and her studio collaborators, and the only one located in the United States. The garden is a joint effort by Saint Phalle, who financed the sculpture project, and the city of Escondido, which acquired the land and is responsible for landscaping, maintenance and operation.

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Saint Phalle chose as her subject the mythical Queen Califia, an Amazon warrior for whom the state of California is named. This amazing creature, first popularized in a 16th century romance novel, is believed to have ruled a terrestrial island paradise of gold and riches “on the right hand of the Indies.”

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 She conceived the garden as a gigantic circle (120 feet in diameter) with an 11-foot statue of Queen Califia in the center. Clad in gold armor astride a monumental, 13-foot eagle, she carries another regal bird on her uplifted hand. Surrounding her are her courtiers, eight totems representing animals and elements of the land over which she reigns.

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The first sight is of the imposing statue of Queen Califia, executed in mosaic, mostly gold (installed by Lech Juretko’s Art Mosaic of El Cajon).

She is a voluptuous figure that suggests power and vision as she looks West. The eagle, on which she rides, stands on four powerful legs that form a mini temple decorated with symbols of Queen Califia’s reign. This space is accessible to children and small adults.

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Entrance to the magical circle is through a maze of black, white and mirror tiles on the walls and floor. Inside, the scale and breadth of Saint Phalle’s vision is impressive. The floor of the circle is tiled in white ceramic circles of varying diameters.

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Saint Phalle intended for the garden to be user-friendly. “You can feel the sculptures,” she said in one of her last interviews. “They feel nice and you won’t harm them. You can be a part of them; it’s like a marriage between the sculptures and a child, or adult. Maybe it brings out the child in adults, too.”

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The central courtyard, with shade from trees in planters around the walls, reflects that feeling. Three benches of travertine marble and river rocks that front the planters will seat approximately 60 visitors at a time. The entire project is a visual delight. Everything about the sculpture garden is cursive.

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The walls undulate in an irregular circle, and rise and fall in height from 4 to 9 feet. The interior walls are faced with Mexican pebble stones and tens of thousands of hand-cut glass, ceramic and stone mosaic tile. The mosaic designs are primarily bands that vary from abstract figures of plants and animals to representations of plaids, diagonals and medallions. The walls also bear ceramic plaques incised with American Indian rock art symbols along with handprints of the workers and their families.

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The fiberglass totems, varying in height from 11 to 21 feet, stand at floor level and can be examined close-up. They are surreal but easily recognizable shapes mounted on columns bearing other animals and birds.

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The Yelling Man Totem differs from the others. Instead of being mounted atop a column, the column is the totem, with a giant open mouth at floor level. A large iguana crawls up the back of the Cathead Totem, while the Bullhead Totem sports bears and eagles. An eagle upside down and another iguana decorate the Birdhead Totem.

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The Step Totem, one of two with mirror mosaics, has a small seat for viewers directly in front of two seated figures.

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A multibodied snake embraces the Kingfisher Totem. The Snake Totem has two if its namesakes entwined around a column decorated with mirror tiles.

Sculpture garden by late artist opens in Escondido North County Times – North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News – –

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Queen Califia’s Magic Circle Mosaic Sculpture Garden – Niki de Saint Phalle – Escondido, California

Mosaic Art SourceMosaic Master – Niki de Saint Phalle Mosaic Image Archive

Mosaic Art SourceWho was Niki de Sant Phalle?