The Spirit of Coming Together

“I call the sculpture Coming Together because that is what we must achieve as individuals and as a city.” 

 Excerpt of Niki de Saint Phalle’s speech for Coming Together Dedication Ceremony, read in her absence by Martha Longenecker, 25 October 2001. Source: NCAF Archives

Coming Together is a public art project that was supported by various San Diego agencies; the Port of San Diego Public Art Program, the Public Art Partnership, the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, and the San Diego Convention Center Corp. After failing to come to an agreement on a preceding proposal by Los Angeles based artist Nancy Rubins, board members agreed that Saint Phalle’s artistic style and legacy was the perfect choice for a new public art project in San Diego. 

Once she agreed, Saint Phalle looked at various locations in San Diego County to build her art piece. During this time, the San Diego Convention Center began its expansion. There was a location available that became the site for the project. The project was funded by the Port of San Diego and constructed in 2001.

One of Saint Phalle’s longtime assistants, Marcelo Zitelli, recalls how Saint Phalle came upon the idea of creating Coming Together. Saint Phalle had created a small model in her studio in France in 1988 as part of her series called “Skinnys”. This sculpture series, started in the early 1980’s, signifies Saint Phalle’s personal struggle with emphysema and sickness. Whereas the “Skinnys” represent the airy, light and relieved sensation that her lungs could not achieve.

When my lungs were severely damaged by working in polyester, air came into my life. I had to learn how to breathe again, breathe deeply. The Skinnys reflected that change.

Niki de Saint Phalle in Insider/Outsider World Inspired Art. Exhibition Catalogue. San Diego: Mingei International Museum, 1998.

With her move to San Diego, the model was transported to her local warehouse where it sat on a shelf unnoticed for many years. During one of the times Saint Phalle and Zitelli were visiting the warehouse, she saw the unfinished model and took it to her studio in La Jolla.

When she was commissioned by the City of San Diego, Saint Phalle decided this model would be a perfect fit for the project and she wanted to create an enlarged version of it.

A colorful drawing of the sculpture titled "Coming Together" with a flower, and eye, an arrow, a dancing Nana and a question mark surrounding it. The signature of the artist is below the design. This is the invitation to the dedication ceremony of the public sculpture.
Invitation for dedication ceremony of Coming Together, 2001
The sculpture I have proposed to the Convention Center is the image of one person in all his or her magnificence and joy, which is represented by its brightly colored glass flickering in the sunlight, I also show the darker image of the self in the gray and black tones. 

There is the feminine side with the longer hair and the masculine side. It is the coming together, the integration of the self.

It is a western interpretation of ying yang. The windows in the head allow us to see nature and the sea, representing an awareness of our surroundings. The mirrors will give, like the wheel of life, a sense of perpetual movement. Each time of day will reflected in the mirrors. The sunset, the sunrise.

This sculpture also represents my personal struggle to integrate the different sides of my personality. This is a challenge we all face.

A city also needs a “Coming Together”, an integration of all its elements. What better site than the convention center as the soul of the city unified.

Niki de Saint Phalle, 2001. Source: NCAF Archives

Coming Together is the largest “Skinny” Saint Phalle made, standing at 30 feet in height and weighing 10 tons. It was constructed in 3 pieces and bolted to the ground when it was installed at its permanent location.

Construction and Installation of Coming Together, 2001. Photos © Lech Juretko

The sculpture was built by fabricator La Paloma Fine Arts and design materials were then applied by local artisan company Art Mosaic Inc. The owner of Art Mosaic Inc, Lech Juretko worked closely with Saint Phalle from 1994. He described the abundance of materials that were used on Coming Together. There is a myriad of colors; upwards of 70 various shades of glass and mirror, as well as 6-7 different kinds of stones and rocks purchased from all parts of the world. There are fossils, turquoise, pink quartz rocks from Madagascar, and even a green Agate slab that Juretko brought from his home country of Poland.

Niki de Saint Phalle humorously said of her vast use of the design materials:  “I think I’m the most expensive sculptor alive because I’m using all these materials.”  (Niki de Saint Phalle-Coming Together. Dir. Nick Nordquist. KPBS in association with Niki de Saint Phalle, 2002. Documentary).

Niki de Saint Phalle and Art Mosaic Inc. artisan Lech Juretko, 2001. Photo: © Lech Juretko

Creating Public Art has always been important for Niki de Saint Phalle. Her large scale artworks have been accomplished through various collaborations. Saint Phalle understood the necessity of having a strong, talented team to help achieve her artistic vision.ver New York expresses:

Saint Phalle’s sculptures are colorful, joyful, and meant to allow interaction between audience and art, yet there are also powerful reasons and purpose to them. Amongst these are religions conflicts, health pandemics, race, gender, and politics. 

Golemwas built in 1971-1972 as an artistic playground in Jerusalem. Amidst the religious war occurring in the city, the park turned into a safe haven for children to play with each other, regardless of faith.

Golem, 1971-1972 Photos: © Leonard Bezzola Estate

1968 was also the year of the birth of Saint Phalles’ inflatable Nanas. These The artist was also very involved in creating awareness and providing education to the public about AIDS with a book she wrote and illustrated with the help of Swiss immunologist and AIDS specialist Dr. Silvio Barandun. The book titled AIDS: You can’t catch it holding hands was published in 1986 in the United States and then was translated into German, French, Italian, and Japanese.

The significance of Coming Together was magnified with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The original date set for the dedication ceremony was September 14, 2001, but this had to be delayed until October 25th. Due to her deteriorating health, Saint Phalle was unable to attend the ceremony and asked her longtime friends, Martha Longenecker and Ted Tourtelotte, speak in her honor. San Diego mayor Dick Murphy stated in his speech during the October 25th dedication ceremony:

“In light of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and the subsequent coming together of America in unity, we could not have picked a better name for this particular sculpture or a more appropriate sculpture in the history of San Diego or America.”

Excerpt of Mayor Dick Murphy’s speech for Coming Together Dedication Ceremony, 25 October 2001. Source: NCAF Archives

Niki de Saint Phalle, 1987. Photo: NCAF Archives

Besides Coming Together in downtown San Diego, there are also three large mosaic sculptures at the San Diego Waterfront Park (SealBaseball Player #19, and Serpent Tree). The Sun God sculpture is a 14 foot colorful bird that sits upon a 15 foot concrete arch, amongst trees and grass at the University of San Diego, CA.  It was Saint Phalle’s first outdoor sculpture in America, commissioned in 1983. At the Kit Carson Park in Escondido, CA stands Queen Califia’s Magical Circle. It is an ode to the legendary Amazon queen Califia and the artists’ last major project before her death in 2002.

Installed at the UC San Diego campus, La Jolla, California

In the face of the current global pandemic, the humanity, kindness and support people have shown each other is inspiring. Niki de Saint Phalle knew the importance of forming a united front, of people joining together and forgetting their differences. Coming Together, embodies Saint Phalle’s belief in the unification of communities and of balance within ourselves.