December 21, 2019
While I had been familiar with and admired Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas throughout the years, my discovery of The Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Italy is what truly established her as a primary source of inspiration. The Tarot Garden itself is breathtaking, its large sculptures evoking a sense of whimsy and adventure, its colors and textures both startling and harmonic. And yet as I did a deeper dive into this artist’s life, it is her general “bad ass-ness” that evokes the deepest sense of reverence within me as an artist. Niki seemed to embody the concept of women’s rights before there was a movement, and I am in awe of these 20th century role models who were saying, quite loudly, that women deserve to live their lives outside of the confines of societal expectations.
My first introduction to art was through my grandmother who, after divorcing my grandfather at the age of 40, moved to Tapalpa, Mexico to live and work in a community of renowned weavers, choosing to reclaim the artistic training she’d received in primary school and college rather than fall victim to standard conventions. She remained committed to that truth throughout the rest of her life, offering me a living example of someone who had the courage to be her most authentic self, even when doing so proved difficult.
Niki de Saint Phalle was self-trained as an artist, and she utilized mediums and styles that often-evoked outrage among her critics. Perhaps it was due to a lifetime spent rebelling against her upbringing that motivated her to stay the course, even when her work was considered “outsider art.” She had been a fashion model at one point, she was ostracized by her family, been kicked out of multiple schools and, later in life, she’d left her two children in the care of her ex-husband in order to pursue a life that felt authentic to her. It was after being institutionalized in Nice, France that she found comfort in creating art, and it was then that she committed herself wholly to evolving her self-expression through various mediums.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tirs were, quite literally, explosive in their disruptiveness, incorporating performance, body art, sculpture and painting. Her Nanas, for which she was heavily criticized for “commercializing,” were actually subtle (and not so subtle) statements on women’s roles in society.
The Tarot Garden, which is located in a part of the world to which I feel a deep sense of connectedness, was begun in the late 1970’s and continued until she died in 2002. I’ve been spending extended periods of time in Tuscany for the past 20 years and this past summer was my first adventure to the gardens. The olive trees, rolling hills and small dirt roads were all quite familiar, these sculptures were not, and yet I felt at home. It was extremely hot and dry the day of our visit; the area had been roasting in the massive heat wave that blazed throughout all of Europe. Yet within the garden I don’t recall feeling the oppressive heat that had felt so out of place and uncomfortable in Siena. I was immersed, fully, in the art and experience that Niki had created. It felt as though the paint could still be drying on each totem she had originally envisioned. The mosaics seem to glow with fresh and revitalizing energy. I’d like to know if the temples to each goddess or god were used in certain ceremonies? It’s now a tourist site and easy to get into the flow of “wow look at that fountain” or “imagine how long it took to make that,” but I did my best to keep my mind and body still in the spaces that Niki had created, imagining the joy and also pains that she had gone through in creating this 21-year art piece.
Besides the general awesomeness of the installation, the spirit of collaboration that is evident in the display is truly moving. Throughout her artistic career, Saint Phalle often collaborated heavily with other artists and creatives, among them her longtime lover, showcasing a sense of collective consciousness in her creative process. This is also something I am keen on maintaining within my own art; I believe that in lifting others up and honoring their talent and creativity, the sum is often bigger than the whole of its parts.