Queen Califia’s Magical Circle

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle!  It sounds like something from ancient mythology, a strange dream, or perhaps the 60’s psychedelic movement…right?  When I entered this magical circle – which is in fact a spectacular, kaleidoscopic sculpture garden – it felt a bit like all three.


The sculpture garden is a vibrant creation of Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 to 2002), a fantastic French sculptor, painter, and filmmaker whose work I first experienced at the Guggenheim in Bilbao during a recent trip to Spain with my boyfriend (EZ) and some friends. At the Guggenheim, I was struck by the passion, color combinations, shape, whimsy, and visceral nature of her art.

Saint Phalle’s works ranged from the jubilant, larger-than-life feminine figures of the Nanas (“I love the round, the curves, the undulation…the world is round, the world is a breast” – Niki de Saint Phalle)…


…to the powerful statement of her mixed-media pop gun art (“I was shooting at myself – I was shooting my own violence and the violence of the times”)…


…to the adolescent, fanciful Dear Diary drawings that belied the capricious heart and troubled childhood they exposed (“Most people don’t see the edginess in my work. They think it’s all fantasy and whimsy”)


…to the strange, psychedelic children’s books about AIDS (“AIDS is a complex situation that’s sure to bring out the best and the worst in people”)


…to her rainbowed, mirrored, mosaic sculpture garden of endearing critters and beasts (“It’s my destiny to make a place where people can come and be happy: a garden of joy”) – Queen Califia’s Magical Circle.


After falling in love with Niki de Saint Phalle’s works at the Guggenheim, EZ and I vowed to explore her sculpture garden in Escondido, back in our home state of California. And we finally did this past weekend! It is a gorgeous, phantasmagorical oasis!

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is bordered by a maze of walls fitted with black, white, and mirrored quadrilaterals and triangles (the mirrors reflect the colorful sculptures within the garden). Atop these walls slither cartoonish, undulating snakes.






If you take a closer look, you’ll see the materials used in the mosaic patchwork are varied: an epic assortment of tile, glass, mirror, and stone gathered from around the world and also used to create the other mosaic sculptures in the garden.

“Niki personally selected dozens of varieties of glass in differing shapes, color, hue, translucency, and degrees of reflection,” said Lech Juretko, who directed Saint Phalle’s mosaic workshop. “For the first time, she also used a wide assortment of polished and tumbled stones such as travertine, agates, quartzes, and veined turquoise.”

All of these materials come together for a bold effect that is nothing short of magical.



Once you move beyond the maze walls and the guardian snakes, you’ll find a gigantic multicolored eagle at the center of the circle, ridden by the armored Queen Califia herself. And who is Califia? Why, she is the stuff of legends: a black Amazon queen fabled to rule an island paradise of treasure. She is also a symbol of feminine power.


Beneath the enormous bird, a domed temple portrays the scintillating cosmos and harbors a grand, golden egg.


Through the arches of the domed underbelly, you can see the other statues in the garden.

Saint Phalle drew on regional history and mythology while planning the sculptures for the garden, particularly the totem-pole structures (“They became springboards to create imaginative creatures which celebrate the diversity of life, as well as those factors which have played a large role in Southern California [including the Spanish, Mexican, and Southwestern Indian cultures]” – Niki de Saint Phalle).

These totems feature sacred and symbolic monsters, animals, humans, deities, and iconography.  All of this was lost, however, on the many children who scampered about the Magic Circle – to them, all of the sculptures just looked funny, scary, or interesting – but above all – COOL. The sculptures ignited the imaginations of children and adults alike.

After taking the time to appreciate the artistic and historical significance of the sculptures, EZ and I scampered around the Magic Circle ourselves, communing with each proud, grotesque, or comical creature and trying to mimic their expressions.









Why would an internationally renowned artist like Niki de Saint Phalle create such a dazzling sculpture garden in little old Escondido? Well, in 1994, Saint Phalle moved from Paris to La Jolla, California due to poor health and found the change of scenery to be healing.

“California has been a rebirth for my soul and an earthquake for my eyes—sea, desert, mountains, wide open sky, brilliance of light and vastness of space,” Saint Phalle said. “I have embraced another way of life, and have let my discovery of this landscape manifest itself in my work.”


© Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporation

Niki de Saint Phalle, 1972


Niki 4

NIki 5

If you are in the San Diego/Escondido area or plan to visit, I highly recommend you check out Queen Califia’s Magical Circle – it’s free!  However, it is only open to the public on the second Saturday of each month from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., weather permitting.



Located in the Iris Sankey Arboretum

Kit Carson Park

3333 Bear Valley Parkway

Escondido, CA 92025


And if you’re looking for something to do in the area before or afterwards, here are a few recommendations:


Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens:  A beautiful brewery with an open, chic  interior and lovely, expansive grounds (huge patio, turf areas, babbling brooks, etc.)




Plan 9 AlehouseA gastropub with mouthwatering food creations, decent drinks, a hipster vibe, and an area where you can play Nintendo! It’s also pleasant to stroll and peruse the little downtown area where the alehouse is located.

EscoGelato: Amazing gelato. Enough said.

Sunny Side Kitchen: Delicious brunch. Small but quaint atmosphere.

Looking for a place to stay?  Try Capability Ranch.  Get the fun ranch experience while watching your money go toward a great cause.  This is where we stayed during our visit.

And here are a few cool spots near Capability Ranch:

  • Potato Chip Rock: A challenging hike and a striking photo op on a precipitous potato-chip-thin rock!
  • Lake Poway Park: A lovely lake with recreation areas and hikes.
  • Company Pub & Kitchen: Delicious food, decent drinks, cool atmosphere.
  • ChuckAlek Independent Brewers: ChuckAlek specializes in Old World style beers, recreating heritage craft brews by using…beer historians!   ChuckAlek also offers a fascinating selection of experimental beers.
  • Goodwill Bookstore: One of the best used book stores I’ve been to. Reasonable prices, well organized, wide range of books, many popular books, offers records and knickknacks, and pleasant atmosphere.  Need I say more?  Actually, I will say more – it’s a good cause. Goodwill provides job training, employment placement services, and other community-based programs for people who have disabilities.

Happy visiting! 🙂


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