Niki sculptures take root at the Garden


Bloum Cardenas grew up seeing her grandmother creating.

And when Niki de Saint Phalle began a round, bright female piece called “Clarice Again,” Cardenas watched it in the yard and painted and colored a smaller version of her own.

“She didn’t want me to be painting on her work,” said Cardenas, a board member of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation and herself an artist living in San Francisco working mostly with plastic bags. “But she gave me one to color so that I could participate.”

On Sunday, April 27, Niki in the Garden officially opens at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Guides and signs will let people know exactly which ones are meant for looking and which are built for climbing.

Since 2001, the garden has brought in outside art, including Chapungu, stone sculptures from Zimbabwe, and most notably the glass creations of Dale Chihuly. But nothing has invited participation the way Niki has.

On Sunday, Kim Treff of St. Louis watched as her daughter, Greta, 3, climbed around one of two giant, mosaiced lions.

Treff loved the colors, the size and how her daughter could explore it, she said, but it’s not something you expect to see here.

Because of that, Lynn Kerkemeyer, special exhibitions manager for the garden, wasn’t sure what people would think of Niki’s pieces, all sculptures made of fiberglass and mosaic or painted polyester. They explode, she said, with color, light and brightness.

For all their beauty, Kerkemeyer thought, “they are very different from our formal garden.”

Already, though, “we’re just seeing people of all ages absolutely loving it,” said Karen Hagenow, public relations coordinator with the garden.

“It’s very accessible,” she said. “Which is what’s exciting about it.”

All 39 pieces (the two lions are considered one piece) were created by Niki de Saint Phalle and cost about $1 million to bring in, including installation and shipping, Kerkemeyer said. Most of that amount came from donors and corporate sponsors. The French-born, self-taught artist and only female member of Europe’s New Realist movement made the sculptures of animals, totems, women, or “nanas,” and black heroes before her death in 2002. She was 71 at the time, suffering from emphysema, a result of breathing polyester fiber early in her career.

Her work is featured around the world, including in Italy, Jerusalem and California. And often when making the animal and totem sculptures, Cardenas said, her grandmother was thinking of children.

But the exhibit, which runs through Halloween, isn’t meant just for kids.

As Linda Kutter of Wood River, IL, toured the garden, she caught sight of the six-ton skull, “La Cabeza.”

“Look at that one,” she said to her husband. “Holy cow.”

— Kristen Hare

Read the exploits of Cavi and the Giant Skull.