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Hidden San Diego: Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden

The whimisical work of Niki de Saint Phalle in a unique sculpture garden


Niki De Saint Phalle Sculpture Garden

The entrance to Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden

Inigo Figuracion
View the Image Gallery of Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden here.

You know you've come across the work of the late artist Niki de Saint Phalle because you first think, "What the heck is that?" Then you say, "Hmmm, it's kinda cool looking." And then you always smile. Invariably, while you're processing all of this in some intellectual manner, there are children climbing up, over and through the sculpture pieces. Her work is unique, indeed.

You've probably seen de Saint Phalle's public work here in San Diego, especially if you frequent Balboa Park. A few years back, the Mingei Museum hosted several of her whimsical sculptures, which often sort of kind of represent animal/human characteristics, and are painted in bright colors and often utilize mosaic or mirror tiles as well. Two of her pieces stand permanently in front of the Mingei, as well as one in front of the Hall of Champions.

De Saint Phalle's San Diego works also include the famous Sun God piece on the grounds of UCSD, which first brought the artist notoreity in this area back in 1983. She also has a piece, Coming Together, at the San Diego Convention Center. The artist has public works of art all over the world.

So, it might be kind of a surprise that Escondido's Kit Carson Park, of all places, is where you'll find the only American sculpture garden and the last major international project by Niki de Saint Phalle (she died in 2002). It's called "Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden," inspired by California's mythic, historic and cultural roots.

Tucked away in the sprawling Kit Carson Park, the sculpture garden, which opened in 2003, is located in the Iris Sankey Arboretum area of the park. The garden consists of nine large-scale sculptures, a circular "snake" wall and maze entryway, sculturally integrated bench seatiing, and native shrubs and trees planted within the interior plaza and around the permimeter.

The centerpiece is the 22-foot Queen Califia and Eagle Throne, where you'll often find people sitting within the bird's legs, just enjoying the whimsical setting. The circular snake wall welcomes you into the garden, and as you navigate the mosaic maze, you desposit into a plaza of an array of totems, all bearing the unmistakable stamp of the artist.

"Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden" is a wonderful spot to disappear into and escape into a magical and fanciful world, even if only for a brief moment. And even amid the bustle of Kit Carson Park's picnic areas, playgrounds and ballfields, you can discover a little bit of solitude and artistry tucked away in this quiet corner.

"Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden" is located in Escondido's Kit Carson Park. From I-15, take Via Rancho Parkway to Mary Lane, and follow the signs.

Hidden San Diego is an occasional series of articles on not-so-obvious but interesting places around and About San Diego

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