While I was in college in San Diego, one of my favorite places to wander around with a camera and journal was Balboa Park — a giant, urban park studded with Spanish architecture that holds museums, art, a conservatory and gardens. With buskers playing instruments and dancing, it is always full of music.
Alcázar Garden is a landscaped garden inspired by Spanish castles, tucked between two museums in Balboa Park. In the middle of the garden is a Moorish-tiled, turquoise-yellow fountain. I would often sit on a bench by this fountain and look at a tall statue in the corner of the garden called Poet and Muse. It depicts two curvy, chunky, whimsical figures: one standing on the shoulders of the other, their legs and arms blending together. Covering it are sparkling mosaics of primary-colored stone, bright in the San Diego sun. Fleshy reds and blood-orange droplets glisten against the white and silver.
Poet and Muse was created by the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whose multiple, large-scale artworks are displayed throughout San Diego. She is also known for her giant, interactive sculptures and works of art that are found in parks and cities around the world. There are so many in San Diego because that’s where she retired before she died in 2002. “California has been a rebirth for my soul and an earthquake for my eyes,” she said.
A few weeks ago I found Saint Phalle’s autobiography, What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined, at the library. Featuring her original art along with her writings, journal entries, letters that include commentary on her art and what it means to create, it’s such a colorful and provocative book.
She was so aware of social injustices like the patriarchy, homophobia, poverty and climate change. At the same time, and perhaps because of this awareness of the deep suffering in the world, she loved color and joy making.
“I like the fact that I am able to say something on a very immediate level,” she said. “So much art today has become tied up with ideas, with philosophy, with the abstract, and a lot of people feel excluded from it because of the impoverishment of the image. Nobody is excluded from my work.”
The Tree of Life, the art on the cover of the book, is a swirling tree with thick and dripping branches. One half of the tree is colored with swaths of pink and yellow and orange with green teardrop leaves. Written in curlycue handwriting are French words: la beaute, l’amour, la resurrectione. The other half of the tree is black and white with intricate designs on the trunk and roots, with words like l’injustice and la tragedie written inside. In the center of the tree is a woman peeping through — likely Saint Phalle — seeing it all, diamond tears covering her cheek and chest.
“I thought beforehand that to be provocative, you had to attack religion or generals,” Saint Phalle said in a 1968 interview. “I realized that there was nothing more shocking than joy.”
Even her more political pieces, like AIDS, you can’t catch it holding hands, center human dignity. “I am all alone,” says the speech bubble coming from an illustrated woman in a colorful dress. On the next page, someone is chained to a rainbow dragon-beast, and in colorful letters it says “We must overcome our fear.”
One of my favorite parts of the book is when she writes about her creative process, how her work is her “secret jealous lover.” On the page, a pink and gold dragon-bat hovers above Saint Phalle in her bed.
“My secret jealous lover (my work) is always there waiting for me,” it reads. “He is tall and elegant and like Count Dracula wears a long black cape. He whispers in my ear that there is not much time left for what I am meant to do. He is jealous of every moment I spend away from him. He is even jealous of my locked bedroom door.”
Other major themes in her art are romantic love and desire, in which she uses a lot of flower and monster imagery. One of the illustrations in her book is a large flower bursting and blossoming, symbolizing Saint Phalle’s love, with loopy patterns on the inside of its stem, the petals dotted and surrounded with sharp triangles like fangs and dots like eyeballs.
“I love you, you are my flowers,” it reads, the words surrounded by pink, green and yellow flowers. Intermingled is a green monster and pink snake. “You are my tyrannosaurus rex.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about how God shows up in romantic love. It’s a new experience for me — I recently started dating someone, and it’s my first real adult relationship. It’s taken time for me to settle into it; into loving and being loved in this new way.
I’m okay with being alone and have, throughout my twenties so far, really valued my independence. The tension for me in this new relationship has been making room to be loved by another person, to make a new commitment. I have to communicate, I have to set boundaries, I have to learn to be okay with disappointing people sometimes. Those are the monsters, my own fears and insecurities in the face of something so new, vulnerable and precious.
This relationship is not about infatuation or obsession like some of my past experiences with romantic love have been, when I’ve felt like I have lost who I am in it. The relationship I’m in is allowing me, instead, to feel agency to remain authentically myself. I struggle with knowing what I feel or want sometimes, and my partner’s acceptance of me is helping me grow. It is all the pinks and greens and yellows of suns and flowers. I cherish the simple things like cooking together, going on slow walks around the neighborhood, playing our instruments and reading in the same room after busy days.
A few months ago, while sitting in a quiet chapel in prayer, the phrase I love to hear your voice, I love to see your face kept repeating in my head. I began to pray with it as a reciprocal phrase, me saying it to Jesus and Jesus saying it to me.
A few weeks later I read this in Song of Songs (2:14-17):
My dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the hiding places on the mountainside,
show me your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.
A simple truth is that Jesus loves to spend time with me — my words and voice are allowed to take up space. I can sit in silence and empty myself and listen, and I can also speak. I can show my face before the God who loves me and is my everything.
This is also true with human love. I can show who I am, in all my insecurities and vulnerability and not-knowing, to another who still says “I love to hear what you have to say, I love to see you and spend time with you.” God’s love shows up in our flesh and earthlyness. Our human love speaks of God and who God is. It is a gift I’m invited to say yes to, to surrender to, but also to choose. There is creativity in the act of loving and being loved, in all the varied ways it takes shape, in all its colors.
It is good to be with you, God, in all the ways you show yourself to me, I love to hear your voice, I love to see your face.
“There are moments, those eternal moments, when love is a flower,” Saint Phalle writes in one of her letters. “When love is love. Love is the sun. Love is me. Love is you. Love is forever.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cassidy Klein is an essayist, journalist and creative writer based in Chicago, Illinois. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, and attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California, to study journalism and philosophy. After college Cassidy moved to Washington, D.C. for a fellowship with Sojourners Magazine, where she worked as an editorial assistant. Now in Chicago, she lives at The Fireplace, a community of artists, activists and Catholic sisters. She is a freelance writer, editor and assistant with adults with intellectual disabilities at L’Arche Chicago. Find more of her work at cassidyrklein.weebly.com.
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